22 Mei/ 22nd of May (Koen Mortier, Netherlands, 2010) * * * * *

REVIEWED AS PART OF THE 25TH LEEDS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

Fortysomething Sam (Sam Louwyck) starts his day as every other: pacing around his tower block apartment, brushing his teeth, preparing a sandwich and slowly walking out into the beige wallpaper of his everyday life. He’s nothing special and he knows it. We follow him, in a long continuous shot, as he clocks in for his shift as a security guard in a shopping mall. He makes small talk with his colleague, gives a deliveryman directions to a shop inside and then, his face as fixed as his routine, stands out on the pavement, staring into nothing. Nothing happens.

Then, the strangest feeling that time is slowing down. A second of silence. And then, the mall explodes. Glass, concrete and dust are thrust into the bustling streets and Sam is knocked to the ground. Our ears are struck with a shrill ringing, the muffled sounds of fires raging, children crying. As Sam forces his way back inside to help the wounded, we discover not only the cause of the blast but its startling, surreal and deeply affecting aftermath. A man in a black hoodie had calmly entered the building, placed himself below an escalator, reached into his pocket for a detonator and slowly pushed his thumb over the button. His reason for such mindless destruction is initially assumed to be a displaced reaction; his coming-to-terms with mortality, but as we see, through retellings that teasingly edge the story forward like a tentative game of chess, all it takes is a little trigger…

Like a mesmerising merge of Source Code and The Cell, we relive the same morning again and again, each time through different perspectives, mixing reality with fantasy, hallucinations with memories, in a unique and utterly gripping exploration of guilt and grief. While Sam survived, through no particular split-second decision or intervening hand of fate, his punishment is to relive the past, wearing his survivor’s guilt on his face and clothes; damaged and dusted by the debris, even, mysteriously, in the flashbacks before the explosion. In an outstandingly simple narrative device, other characters are drip-fed to us as we are given just a fragment about a particular shop worker, customer or passer-by. They appear to Sam as visions- surely they couldn’t have survived the blast? Are they ghosts?- and, as if visiting Scrooge, plague his conscience. His first victim, a young mother, suddenly appears beside him on a street filled with grey block buildings and the tumbleweed of newspapers. Others sit beside him on the subway train and while recalling how the day had brought them to the mall, accuse him of an apathy that cost them their lives. The most daring, and visually stunning, is the re-appearance of the bomber himself, who, like a devil whispering in his ear, places Sam at the foot of the escalator, the black hoodie over his head, the wires tucked into his pockets.

The film is a masterpiece made up of fine moments.  Sam slowly walks up to a payphone, the receiver swaying loose like a pendulum. He picks it up to hear the very sound of hell itself: the cacophony of those caught in the chaos. Later he somehow manages to watch over himself stuck in the past, appear as an extra in others’ lives and even walk beside the bomber on that pivotal journey to the mall, all the while the most significant of spectators.

Perhaps using the title as a starting point, turning the ordinary to the ominous, just what is 22nd of May? Certainly a tragedy: utilising hindsight as a particularly powerful weapon. Being able to roam around the minds of mass-murderers is of course pure fantasy, but there’s a twisted sense of horror, too; a fatalistic futility found somewhere between Groundhog Day and The Sixth Sense – of knowing the future but not having the means- or worse, the desire-  to do anything about it. It takes a very bold film to close with yet more super- stylised violence; a series of slow-motion explosions charging through the mall, as the characters, on voice-over, struggle for some sort of conclusion. It takes a frankly outstanding film to not only make this extended exercise in nihilism work, but to somehow transform the devastation (surpassing the most dazzling of Inception’s  set-pieces) into a brazen, if not bizarrely endearing, thing of beauty.

© D.Wakefield, 2011

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