Movie Review: MARIANNE (Fantasia Film Festival 2011)

This Swedish ghost movie packs an unexpected emotional wallop.

You could remove the ghost element from Marianne and still have a strong, effective and moving story. In this Swedish film the ghost - in this case a Mare, a vengeful spirit of Swiss folklore - represents the crushing weight of guilt that wears down stern teacher Krister in the aftermath of his wife’s death. Left with his angry, goth teen daughter and a new baby, Krister must deal with the aftermath of a fatal car accident while also dealing with the life-sucking Mare.

Filip Tegstedt’s film is mostly concerned with the way the fatal crash shatters Krister’s family life. A serial cheater, he had left his family for another woman but when his wife, Eva, became unexpectedly pregnant, he came back to the family. Then, a few months after the baby is born, the newly reunited couple leave their older daughter, Sandra, to watch the child while they have a recharging night away. But as they travel there is a terrible car accident… caused by Krister’s spurned lover, Marianne.

Those wishing for tons of great scares and spooky moments will be disappointed, but anyone looking for a strong, thoughtful and well-written family drama will love Marianne. Sandra hated her wayward father before the crash, and afterwards the relationship just crumbles further. That dynamic is what really powers the narrative, and it’s a compelling story that feels real and true, one that doesn’t go for cheap histrionics or schlocky moments. What’s especially interesting about Marianne is the way that Krister, played by Thomas Hedengran, is kind of a hardass and sort of a dick, but remains likable. It’s a brave choice to make the lead not just a cheater but a stiff-necked one, yet Hedengran and Tegstedt make it work, especially as the torments of the Mare slowly wear Kirster down.

The biggest complaint I have about Marianne is that the ending is somewhat anticlimactic; Tegstedt builds to what feels like a crescendo point with the Mare attacks and then backs off. It’s a deliberate choice, not incompetence, but it’s one that left me a little deflated. Regardless, Marianne works so well as a human story that the ever-so-slight fizzle of the ghost story at the end is completely forgivable. Plus, he has created a very spooky ghost, one rarely glimpsed but often heard grinding her teeth and clacking down the hall in high heeled shoes. The Mare lurks in the backgrounds of shots, building uneasiness rather than shock.

Marianne isn’t the scariest ghost movie I’ve ever seen, but it’s one of the saddest and most emotionally effective. What’s incredible is that this is Tegstedt’s directorial debut; Marianne is a work of sure-footed direction and smart writing, and feels incredibly mature and accomplished. If this is where Tegstedt starts I can’t wait to see where he ends up.