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BLACK NIGHTS 2021 First Feature Competition

Review: Alice, Through the Looking


- Experimental theatre director and symphony composer Adam Donen comes to Black Nights with a very free, and very loopy, adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s children’s classic

Review: Alice, Through the Looking
Saskia Axten in Alice, Through the Looking

There’s just a little bit of Lewis Carroll, and only the most minuscule proportion of Proust, in Alice, Through the Looking [+see also:
interview: Adam Donen
film profile
. More than that, it’s a vehicle for director Adam Donen’s askew and theatrical take on the world: a 90-minute soliloquy or one-man show, which succeeds in keeping the momentum up and never tiring us out. It harks back, although falling far of their mark, to surrealist films of the 1960s, like those of Buñuel, and some of Godard’s and Chytilová’s – where even the most informed, most attentive audience member would struggle to rationally synopsise and explain what has transpired. It baffled us, but vibrantly so, when it screened in the just-concluded Tallinn Black Nights’ First Feature Competition.

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Donen – whose CV includes devising holographic dramas, and a successful but brief indie-rock career in the mid-2000s – tries to impose his sensibility and fingerprints upon every element of his debut film, yet the effect is endearing, like that of a showman working painstakingly to ensure that his audience could never get bored (although they could well accuse it of pretentiousness, crammed as it is with wall-to-wall Lacanian discourse). The nominal jumping-off point is Lewis Carroll’s deathless Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and its sequel Through the Looking Glass, but as opposed to making to a faithful adaptation, Donen acts in a more Carrollian spirit by bending the original plot curve into outlandish shapes. Psychedelic and political, it also has the staidness of typical British cinema, and the country’s post-Brexit political climate, in its satirical crosshairs.

Although the movie is festooned (a Donen-esque past participle, for sure!) with polysyllabic words, and cameos from famous intellectual leftists like Slavoj Žižek and Vanessa Redgrave, the South African-raised writer-director actually simplifies Carroll’s famously ludic and riddle-strewn text. There’s only a linear plot arc to follow, as the famous search for the White Rabbit becomes Alice’s (Saskia Axten) obsession with a one-night stand (Elijah Rowen) in the weeks after. Digressions and gags pile upon more digressions, before, half an hour later, another Carroll staple finally appears: the hookah-smoking blue Caterpillar becoming trans psychoanalyst Catherine Pillar, and her hardboiled gumshoe alter ego Cat Pillar (Joerg Stadler). Nothing is really uncovered, and the characterisation forgoes richness in favour of detached and verbose monologues, betting heavily on the humour of the PhD-thesis-level vocabulary sounding absurd as it spills from the mouths of these actors.

Memorable images, and bespoke comic timing, still abound – the impression forming that Donen could further thrive as his film career continues, and starts receiving constructive audience and industry feedback. One of the best images, in the final, more Brexit-critiquing act, involves a Queen Elizabeth II lookalike cold-bloodedly murdering the characters like Patrick Bateman, with fresh blood spurts intricately dotting her face. Then we flash to a penguin colony on a South African beach, filmed in a windowboxed aspect ratio. Does this correspond to Alice ballooning in size, and shrinking at will, in the original text? Within the film’s dream-logic rules, are analyses like these futile? Alice, Through the Looking is a pleasurable kind of brain-ache.

Alice, Through the Looking is a UK production staged by 12th Battalion Productions. Its world sales are handled by Czar Films.

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