Friday, 19 February 2016

Nina Forever Review

Last year my humble hometown of Hull was declared the UK City of Culture 2017 to the surprise of many. Now don't get me wrong, there's certainly a lot that's good about my hometown - we have a pretty decent cultural festivals/attractions to drunk people ratio. But one thing we severely lack is a proper independent cinema outlet. This is an issue I've faced time and time again:
Studio Ghibli's The Wind Rises had exactly one showing, as did David Robert Mitchell's It Follows. Anything more obscure than that and you're out of luck. Which is why I was left with blue balls at the prospect of missing out on Nina Forever, a film that had variously been described to me as one of the most unique horror/comedy/romance/art-house films ever, and "fucked up in a way only Jeffrey Dahmer could appreciate". Fortunately, I discovered the city's sole art-house lifeline (the Hull Independent Cinema Project) had me covered.

The screening itself was an indication of how reverential the HICP people are of films like Nina Forever. As well as arranging to have the film screened (and producing decent programs to go with it) they also managed to get directors Chris and Ben Blaine to introduce it and participate in a Q&A session. The film itself was preceded by a short film from Chris and Ben, entitled ‘Freedom of Speech’. Now no offence to the pair - as they seemed like great guys and did a wonderful job on Nina Forever – but I thought it was a bit naff. It featured a couple in the bath engaging in sexy talk; the women explained her fantasy, and when it came to the man’s turn, he explained he wanted to nob her sister – prompting the end of the relationship. It seems as though it was either pointing a light on the “only my opinions matter” belief society currently seems to hold, or that it was exposing gender hypocrisy. But Danny Dyer was in it, and I refuse to spend more time analysing one of his roles than he spent reading Run for Your Wife’s script. As I said, Chris and Ben are talented guys, and anything they make has surely got to be better than the recreation of The Blair Witch Project I once made using a single smartphone.

After Nina Forever came the Q&A session. I’ve never been to a director Q&A before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the mixture of hilarious anecdotes and fascinating insight into the film making process. The pair joked about everything from a tense encounter with Joe Dante in a catacomb after realising their films were similar, and struggling to get funding for serious projects after making films about wanking off bears. Ben also revealed how he channelled his inner Martin Amis in writing the novel which appears in the film: "He ejaculated urine. Pissing as only a man could. With his hands." Garth Marenghi eat your heart out. There were also a few interesting tidbits mentioned, like how the original cut was over three hours long. And the brothers' 'film manifesto' was fascinating, i.e.; no 3 act structures, no adaptations or genre fiction, and no casting either Brian Cox as teenage girls.
Somewhere in this crowd is your unfriendly neighbourhood Iron Criterion

So Nina Forever. I don’t know where to start with this movie. It’s difficult to categorise - as commented on by the directors themselves. But, if pressed, I’d say it’s a bittersweet exploration of a new relationship that’s constantly in the shadow of the previous relationship. With a zombie. I feel that adding “with zombies” is becoming one of those phrases that are meaningless conversational throwaways: i.e. “it was alright…for a Tuesday.” To sum up the titular Nina as a mere zombie is a little unfair, however, even if she’s essentially an undead being tormenting the living.

Nina Forever follows Rob (Cian Barry), a supermarket worker grieving over his dead girlfriend Nina (Fiona O'Shaughnessy). Co-worker Holly (Abigail Hardingham) is apparently attracted to Rob’s broody catatonia and pursues a relationship with him. The two get together and their relationship blossoms, only for them to discover that whenever they bump uglies, the broken corpse of Nina emerges from the woodwork to mentally torture them. Naturally, for a film this erotically charged, a provocative relationship emerges with Nina becoming part of their sexuality - with all the connotations that brings.

It’s a great, unique concept. A concept which some argue has already been recently done in Joe Dante’s Burying the Ex (hence the awkward encounter), but I don’t buy this. While the two films share some commonalities (dead girlfriend brought back to life, won’t let go, etc.) Nina Forever is entirely different in tone and intent. Burying the Ex is a ‘bro comedy’ that’s pretty misogynist in its treatment of relationships while Nina Forever is an honest treatment of the pain and guilt left behind after a partner dies. Some have also pointed to Life After Beth and Warm Bodies - because they’re about relationships with dead people - but I think people are disingenuous with their comparisons. By that logic, you might as well say the ‘ghost at the feast’ scene in MacBeth is like Nina Forever.

As witty as Nina Forever is, and it certainly courts the gallows humour with gusto (i.e. Holly and Nina watching a film in bed together, and Rob and Holly fucking on Nina’s grave), it’s definitely one of the most sombre takes on this type of story. Rob, who at the beginning attempts to kill himself out of grief, is undoubtedly haunted by the scars left by Nina’s death. And Holly to her credit does her best to make the situation, which is at best a significant imposition, work – even when it becomes clear the impact it is having on her mental (and physical wellbeing). Holly is a rather unusual character, the type of girl who probably likes Sylvia Plath and listens to…well, Amanda Palmer. Her attraction to the macabre and the morbid reflects her desperation to belong. Holly wants to make her relationship with Rob work to the extent that she is willing to ‘share in his grief’; which is I believe is slang for fingering Nina. The film does undergo an interesting development towards the end, which I won’t spoil but I will say that it makes Holly more than just the stock ‘girl fixes man’s problems with vagina’ female lead. I started to think they were going for an It Follows type of deal.

Nina Forever follows that peculiar brand of British horror. Like how in Shaun of the Dead the zombie apocalypse is mostly mundane and the film cumulates in the type of rundown pub that always smells of sawdust and broken dreams. Or Dog Soldiers, which sees its soldier characters effing and blinding at lycanthropes, and fighting them off on the crapper. The idea of the re-animated corpse of your ex-girlfriend appearing whenever you’re having sex with your current girlfriend is, at once, horrifying and humiliating. Perhaps second in humiliation to your mother finding the well-worn poster of Barbara Crampton that’s tucked under your mattress. Though the otherworldly situation with Nina is initially terrifying, it soon becomes a run of the mill emotionally painful and humiliating situation which us Brits are used to by now. Most of the horror comes from the unhealthy relationship Rob, Holly, and Nina form.

Which isn’t to say that it’s never outright horrifying. The first resurrection has shades of Hellraiser about it. It’s probably not particularly trendy to compare an art-house darling to an old Hollywood franchise about a man with a leather fetish, but I couldn’t help but notice the comparison. The scene where Holly spills red wine, and it soaks into the wooden floor, reminded me of when Larry Cotton cuts his hand in the attic – his blood absorbed by Frank’s corpse under the floorboards. Nina’s bloody emergence from the bed also had shades of Julia’s bed-bound summoning in Hellraiser II. That’s about as close to full-blown horror as Nina Forever goes. The concept is initially disturbing, and Nina’s bloody broken body contorting around on shattered limbs is unsettling. Some of the weird sex acts (such as Nina’s hands emerging from the bed and groping Holly’s breasts) are rather unpleasant and stick with you. The only film I can think of that dealt with sexuality in a manner as disturbing as this is Lars Von Trier's Antichrist. However, once the movie establishes its premise, it becomes a different, more existential brand of horror. With ideas of grief and the human condition permeating the narrative.

Fiona O'Shaughnessy delivers an excellent performance as Nina. The three leads are all rather good, but Fiona stands out the most. She plays the role in with thinly-veiled contempt and a dead-pan sense of humour – for example telling Holly to stop trying to sex her up as all she can feel is the glass in the back of her throat. The directors employ the use of body horror with Nina whose broken body is angular in places, reducing her to moving through contortions, making sickening snapping noises as she moves. Her torn body oozes blood everywhere, which leads her to ask Rob rather comically why he always buys white sheets. Regardless of the make-up effects and body horror, it is Fiona’s delivery which brings the character to life. In a manner of speaking. Which is why I was hesitant to call her a zombie. In the most literal way, I suppose she is; although you never do find out ‘why’ she keeps coming back. But then all the good horror stories never have a ‘why’. James Herbert made an entire career out of pulling shit out of a bag, and rarely did he ever provide the reader with a ‘why’. Regardless of zombie status, Fiona’s portrayal of Nina is at once terrifyingly cruel (the printer press scene in the inn) and mournful; something which you’d be hard-pressed to find in most undead characters. 

The only real problem I have with Nina as a character is that she's never really developed. As the exact nature of her resurrections remains unknown, Nina exists as a mere MacGuffin designed to instigate the plot. I don't know what Nina was like before her death, but she's sure as hell become mentally abusive and mean-spirited. Though I suppose repeatedly coming back from the dead and being forced to watch your boyfriend lay into his new girlfriend would be as good a reason as any to be curmudgeonly. Or it could be a more supernatural basis. Revenant is the term; a concept from Middle-Age folklore in which a dead individual returns from the dead to exercise revenge or torment on the living. But because it's never explained it's all this is idle speculation. Nina certainly seems like the contentious type with her weird, angry art and archaic, particular interests. I knew a girl like that in college, and everyone thought the sun shined out of her arse too. Didn't get it then, and I still don't get it now.

Regardless, Nina Forever isn't the type of film which needs to explain itself. The directors are more interested in opening up the wounds of a relationship for all to see. And in this respect, the film does a remarkable job. Cian Barry is highly convincing as Rob, an immediately identifiable figure who is caught between his new girlfriend and his loyalty towards his dead one. A situation most of us probably haven't been in, but the pain is universally understandable. Abigail Hardingham brings a lot of heart to the film as Holly, who undergoes a lot of humiliation - especially the awkward scene in which Rob takes her to meet Nina's parents. The best parts of the film are when she's left alone in Rob's flat trying to erase all trace of Nina, while her state of mind slowly erodes; it's all a bit The Yellow Wallpaper-esque.

Overall, Nina Forever is an excellent feature length debut from the Blaine Brothers. My biggest issue with the film lies with some of the unusual directorial decisions. Take, for example, Rob and Holly's first sex scene. It plays out like this: R&H are at the cinema, there's a sharp edit to Holly getting undressed; the scene then cuts back to them entering Rob's flat, and then back and forth between the events leading up to the dirty deed and the actual deed itself. It was weird and off-putting, like trying to read a book by a strobe light. I guess it was supposed to create a sense of foreboding and tension. Ben and Chris did admit in the Q&A that some scenes ran overly long and meandered a bit. One suspects they simply put together a series of disorientating flash edits in a bid to rework the scene. But surely there has to be a better way of doing this than treating the scene like it's a Rubik's Cube designed to be shuffled around until you give up out of frustration and shout: "Oh fuck it, five out of six sides will do".

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