Alisa (1994)

D: Paddy Breathnach
S: Brendan Coyle, Andrea Irvine, Darragh Kelly, Juliette Gruber

A Dublin genealogist becomes obsessed with the American girl renting one of his apartments, threatening his relationships, his job and his life. Based on the story by Joseph O'Connor, this film demonstrates strong influences of European art house films such as Krzysztof Kieslowski's A Short Film About Love. The result is a film which will appeal to an art house audience, but which is best avoided by everyone else.

Romantic obsession is not meant to be explicable. The compulsions which drive Brendan Coyle's character are beyond comprehension. This film does not attempt to explain them, or even explore them, focusing instead on their outward manifestations; his stealing her mail, his staring moodily at her on the train, his tracing genealogical lines between them, et cetera. The result is a sort of homage to insignificance, a poetic meditation on character and colour which amounts to little more than the obvious. The lack of psychological depth tells after half an hour, when this film begins to feel like an overextended short. There is simply not enough material to flesh out a feature film, and without even a modicum of engagement, there is nothing for the audience to hold onto other than to admire the use of the frame and the palette to evoke feelings of loneliness and obsession which we cannot share.

Of course this is precisely the point, and there are those for whom this will prove a rewarding experience. But it revels in the conventional and does nothing to expand the jaded European introversion it so ferverently admires. The setting is new, but this could well be made in any European country and come up exactly the same. Even Dublin is robbed of its individuality. Though the object of the man's obsession is American, and some thematic speculation on the mindset of the emigrant could be read into this, there is nothing specifically Irish about the story. The milieu is so resolutely internal to the character (and still alienating) that it succeeds in draining the story of its specificity in an attempt at a pan-European art house sensibility. Again, this is the point, and may be a triumph for some. But for me at least, this was extremely unpleasant to watch and had long made its point and lost its meaning before the predictable and equally uninteresting ending.

Nothing that happens seems justified (as it shouldn't, being a portrait of obsession). Upon spying this girl through a window, he immediately becomes focused upon possessing some part of her (though he wouldn't dream of actually making contact, of course), which leads to him stealing her mail (which may or may not strike you as interesting), and drawing away from his own girlfriend (Andrea Irvine) and workmate (Darragh Kelly), costing him dearly and never resulting in either consummation or catharsis. It is a pointless tale which trades on its pointlessness. It takes on the character of a religion, if you believe, no explanation is necessary, if you don't, no explanation is possible. The result is a purely European film from a director who, curiously, would later follow a more American path with I Went Down.

The bottom line is that this is a festival film to be applauded and lauded by those eager to embrace this kind of sensibility. Others should avoid it. It is not a bad film, but it is not necessarily a good one simply because it wants to be.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.