Blind: Precarious Disorientation

Norwegian director Eskil Vogt envisions a breathtakingly perceptive film about the fears and fantasies of a 30-something woman who loses her sight.

In cinema, as in life, we tend to think of vision as the primary sense and the most fundamental channel of experience. Through it, we see great beauty: the still green of a forest, the burnt glow of an autumn sunset, or the dull light of a misty streetlamp. To focus on a world without sight, then, is certainly not the most immediate intuition of any filmmaker. But that’s exactly what Norway’s Eskil Vogt has done with his directorial feature-length debut, Blind, which tells of the fears and fantasies that flash through the life of a 30-something woman who suddenly and unexpectedly loses her eyesight.

The blind main character Ingrid (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) narrates the film’s opening, describing the minutiae of a tree, before it majestically arrives on screen. “Places are harder to remember,” she intones, as if signposting the free-flowing visual poem – where imagination takes precedence over reality – that lies ahead. Vogt self-reflexively revels in the creative processes of writers, and through Ingrid shows it to be a means of escape – from the refuge of her hidden-away apartment, she writes about a divorced Swedish mother Elin (Vera Vitali), who is pursued by the lonely fetish-porn addict Einar (Marius Kolbenstvedt, a non-professional) and also, she fabricates, her real-life husband Morten (Henrik Rafaelsen). Vogt’s film playfully jumps and oscillates between their stories, using extreme close-ups and amplified sound effects to deftly convey Ingrid’s own sense of disorientation.

This innovative approach certainly appears to have been a risk worth taking – it was no blind gamble, but a gamble nonetheless. “When the movie was financed and we were going to make it, I suddenly panicked a bit,” confides the 40-year-old director, in a charming, inflected Scandinavian twang. “Since it’s about blindness, there is a lot of normal stuff that you can’t do and that I didn’t want to do because I wanted the film to be subjective from the perspective of a blind person. Editing in films is almost always based on looking – someone looks at something, people are talking and the camera switches between their faces during dialogue. I couldn’t really do those things. I suddenly realised – I can’t really shoot this film if my ideas don’t work. I can’t just retreat to a conventional, classic way of filmmaking. That was scary, but it was also exciting. I think it motivated everybody.”

This puritanism and philosophy is something that Vogt has been honing since he was an adolescent. But rather than at first being inspired by European art house cinema such as the work of towering, fellow Scandinavian Ingmar Bergman, Vogt’s cinephilia stemmed from the mass market. “It was a love of movies that really sparked my interested in making films. I used to watch enormous amounts of film. I watched everything. Including the Hollywood blockbusters – I watched Back to the Future several times in the cinema.”

It was only later that his movie interests migrated back to the continent, via Oslo’s excellent cinematheque. “I suddenly branched out into European film, more sort of auteur works, and became interested in that as well. I even had a splatter film (a particularly gory subgenre of horror) phase.”

The switch from audience member to auteur, however, was not a simple progression. “I wanted to be a filmmaker from a young age, but I didn’t know how to really get involved in the movie business because at the time in the 1990s everyone used to shoot on film, which made it a bit harder to get access to material. And I’m not from a filmmaking family,” explains Vogt, who grew up on the outskirts of the Norwegian capital, with an industrious father who worked as a banker and a mother who was a nurse. “It just felt unobtainable. That’s why I became very interested in screenwriting from the beginning, since that was something that you could do completely alone.”

Only after meeting childhood friend Joachim Trier did opportunities arise – the boy came from the right sort of family (his grandfather was a fairly well-known director in Norway, his father a sound engineer, his mother made documentaries, while the great Danish director Lars Von Trier is a distant relation). “That gave us access to materials,” points out Vogt. The pair – who are still close friends and collaborators today (Louder than Bombs starring Jesse Eisenberg is in pre-production) – went on to work together on Trier’s poetic buddy piece Reprise (2008) and the sharp-witted portrait of an addict Oslo, August 31st (2011), both of which Vogt co-wrote. “Then, we both went to separate film schools (Vogt attended the esteemed French national institution, La Fémis, in Paris). But when he started to make movies, I made them with him as a screenwriter, because I couldn’t get my own financed.”

Before then, the two had begun making short films together. “We were very young. The films I made before I went to a specialist school were highly conceptual. There wasn’t a story. It was about time, or mental states.” With a compelling script – which won the World Cinema Screenwriting Award at Sundance Film Festival last year – Blind is a highly conceptual, visually-striking feature that oozes meticulous consideration and care. The director still appears to be following very much the same path, I suggest. “I haven’t lost my original style,” he agrees, “but I feel that I’ve become more interested in communicating with an audience as well – not just thinking ‘conceptual’ in every way. For example, I get quickly bored with very stylised acting. I feel it’s better to let people follow the psychology of the character.”

In Ellen Dorrit Petersen, a member of The Norwegian Theatre’s permanent ensemble, Vogt certainly found an actor who could burrow deep into the psychology of a character. As Ingrid – tender, profound, sensual, melancholic and in possession of a tar-black humour – Petersen portrays a complex personality, who is far from the stereotypical objects of pity usually seen in depictions of disability on the screen. “What I found during research is that there are so many clichéd representations of blind people,” reveals Vogt. “They don’t look like Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman, who just stares straight ahead even if someone is talking directly to him. Blind people move their heads – they can’t help themselves. It’s so ingrained in the way they react.”

Petersen spent a long period of time working at it, going to a bootcamp that exists to help re-orient the visually-impaired back into the world, training with a cane and a blindfold, and spending time with a woman who went through many of the same issues as Ingrid. “To portray this role, it wasn’t easy,” understates Vogt, who can’t help but laugh when referring to the music video for Lionel Richie’s Hello – in which a woman reads braille with the light on – as an unstudied example. “It was very hard, but Ellen kept at it for months. We had thought it was all about the eyes, but what makes it convincing is the body language. Even in a familiar apartment, you are always guarded in your movements. They’re not exaggerated, but they’re just there all the time.” Vogt initially imagined Petersen in the role, but only after seeing 200 other women did he return to his original intuition and finally cast her.

Blind translates this precariousness of the everyday compellingly. In one scene, a spilt microwave meal descends into a chaotic emotional struggle, while another shows how treacherous a cobbled street can be. As the film shows, even the slightest creak of the floorboard can lead to suspicion. It can lead to a solitary existence. “The thing that inspired me was the character of a woman who stayed in her apartment a lot in my friend Terje Holtet Larsen’s short story A monologue of her thoughts.” Despite other suggestions that people made – David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories – the only film that Vogt was influenced by, he says, was Alain Resnais’ Providence, which follows the mental process of an old writer, played by John Gielgud, who makes characters of everyone close to him.

Truth be told, storytelling and blindness have been bedfellows since the dawn of human history. Homer, the first raconteur that we know of, is depicted as blind, the prophet Tiresias from Greek mythology was known for his clairvoyance despite a lack of sight, while visual impairment was the fate of 20th century cultural giants such as Jorge Luis Borges and Henri Matisse.

Vogt resolved to treat imagination as a way of seeing. “When we think of blindness, we often think of those who are born blind. They are so different from us. Their conception of the world is so different. We say, you live in darkness, and they say, ‘what is darkness?’ But with those that have lost their sight, they still have a visual imagination. They are capable of seeing images. I found that very, very cinematic. That’s not living in darkness.”

In the film, Ingrid deals with her situation by altering the world with her mind. She imagines everything from adultery, to the changing backdrops to a conversation. “I’ve had those moments – the way the blind character sits and manipulates her fiction alone in a room,” admits Vogt, who suggests that the character’s situation almost parallels that of the cinema viewer. “In darkness with images flashing, it becomes a kind of heightened reality. It’s also about fantasy in real life, because blind people are victims of their imagination a little more than we sighted people are. If we get the strange feeling that someone is in the room with us, then we can just turn around, but a blind person doesn’t have an objective way to keep their imagination in check. For me, it becomes more about the fantasy imagination of life.”

It was therefore important have accompanying music that hit all of the right notes. “It was a difficult thing to score because I originally felt that the scenes with Ingrid should be scoreless, instead focusing on the sounds around her, since they are so important for her character,” Vogt explains. Yet the team was very fortunate in that they managed to secure funding from the Netherlands to complete post-production. “We still had to score the film, so we had to find a Dutch composer and one day a friend suggested listening to former Amsterdam pop star Henk Hofstede, who was prevalent in the eighties.” The Greek cinematographer [Thimios Bakatakis] was apparently starstruck on discovering the news, since Hofstede had been huge in Greece. The result nonetheless is a fluttering Amelie-esque score and, particularly, a mesmeric piano coda that does well to convey Ingrid’s inner thoughts.

But Bakatakis inspired some awe of his own. “Since I didn’t have a photographer that I regularly collaborated with, I naively tried to get someone from the top of my international list,” explains Vogt, referring to Bakatakis, who previously worked on the Oscar-nominated Dogtooth (2009) and the remarkable Attenberg (2010). “What I really found interesting about those films was that he was gifted in framing things in an original and striking way. Beyond that, I say he had this simple approach to lighting – the lighting in his work seems very neutral and natural. It gave credibility to the strange things going on. It wasn’t just abstract upon abstract. If there had been gels on the projector, or purple and orange lighting, those films would have never touched me in the way that they did.”

The film is full of considered, naturally-lit imagery. When a cloud passes by Ingrid’s apartment and shrouds it in darkness, she does not react. “She would be sitting in natural light that would evolve from morning until evening,” Vogt explains. “But when her husband came home, he would turn on the house lights, and the atmosphere of the apartment changed completely.” We become more aware as spectators, aware of a world that is very real – it has references to Google Earth, Facebook, and poignantly, the recently deceased Leonard Nimoy – but not one without humour. “My first impulse when making this movie was that I could have a lot of fun with it. Don’t misunderstand me, I know the existential crisis that losing your sight entails, but I kept finding this impulse of lightness resurfacing, and not letting darkness take over.”

This is the greatest achievement of Blind?: it humanises the life of blind people. It runs from the plain slapstick of Ingrid walking into the door, to funny narration insights (“He loved stilettos, but women’s legs seemed more real when they ended up in slippers”), to the pure black comedy of her voice-assisted mobile phone that broadcasts a personal argument to awkward fellow commuters. The most touching moment of the film is when Ingrid presses herself naked against the window of her high-rise apartment, in an act of desperation – unable to see, but desperate to be seen. Blindness may have cultural connotations of the subliminal, but as Eskil Vogt’s film shows, the existence of a person who has lost their sight is as fully real as anyone else’s. Blind is in cinemas now. Find out more at www.axiomfilms.co.uk.

Peter Yeung

Credits:
1. Film still from Blind by Eskil Vogt. Photo: © KimmSaatvedt/Motlys.