You don't see many movies shot in 16mm anymore. The low-budget niche it once dominated is now occupied by digital; if you're shooting film in this day and age, you're a bigger budget production shooting on 35mm or even 70mm. But 16mm has its own charms: it's portable, it's a (comparatively) cheap entry point into celluloid; it's got a pleasingly thicc grain structure. As such, it's still in sporadic use in film schools, though rarely for features seen outside educational environments.
Luz is a rare exception. Like last year's festival darling Hagazussa, it’s a thesis film from a graduation student - this time, from director Tilman Singer - that’s good enough to escape into the real world (or at least, as real as the film festival world is). Shot entirely on 16mm stock, in CinemaScope, it bears the texture of a low-budget film from decades past - and that's key to its success.
The story of Luz is a relatively simple one, even if its telling isn’t. It opens with two scenes, that then feed into a third scene, which forms the bulk of the movie. First, a taxi driver named Luz (Luana Velis) rushes into a near-empty police station in a panic. Then, at a nearby bar, psychologist Dr Rossini (Jan Bluthardt) is seduced by a mysterious woman named Nora. Drugged, Rossini is taken into a restroom stall by Nora, who proceeds to subject him to some otherworldly transfer of consciousness. By this stage, the police have questioned Luz, and a much-changed Dr Rossini arrives to do some questioning of his own.
It's when Rossini’s interrogation begins that Luz truly comes into its own. Through hypnosis, he and Luz undergo a strange, mind-bending trip through Luz’s memory of the past twenty-four hours. As Luz acts out her memories, in an elaborate, hypnotised mime performance in the middle of the police station, we catch nonlinear fragments of her story: a ritual at a Catholic girls’ school, a crashed cab, a doomed romance. As the interrogation process starts slipping outside of conventional reality, it becomes clear that there’s an ancient demon in the room, and it’s committed to taking as many lives as it can.
To put it lightly, Luz’s storytelling is rather odd. A remarkably stagey film in its setup, it escapes feeling constrained by location, thanks to terrific direction and dreamlike modulation of mise-en-scene. The story, told out of sequence, requires only that the audience remain attentive to it. Velis’ and Bluthardt’s performances are physical and committed, displaying intense focus on both their parts, while Simon Waskow’s ominous score builds a compelling sense of impending doom. Many have invoked the name of Andrzej Żuławski in describing the film, and it’s a fair comparison: Luz bears the Polish director’s obsession with psychological breakdown and rejection of convention, and concerns itself with the ownership of bodies, minds, and souls in a similar fashion to the magnificent Possession.
Singer's direction here can and should teach his digital contemporaries a lesson. Hemmed in by the economics of shooting on costly celluloid, Singer had little choice but to plan his shoot to the nth degree - a process that shows in the final film. Luz is directed with such precision, with every shot meticulously composed and every performance well-rehearsed, that it comes across as the work of a much more experienced filmmaker. It flies in stark contrast to the “shoot everything” ethos of digital, which - while useful in many ways - often creates a loose, improvisational tone that doesn’t necessarily work for every production.
Luz may evoke the work of ‘80s genre/arthouse auteurs, but it's not a work of overt homage. Instead, Singer taps into the same formal, narrative, and psychological experimentation that fueled the work of Żuławski or Jodorowsky or Tarkovsky - as clear and intelligent a thesis statement as there ever was. Luz feels like a film out of time, a dream-logic stream of unconsciousness that builds a potent atmosphere of dread. In this story of hypnosis and demonic possession, the craftsmanship is itself hypnotic, haunting the viewer. There's very little to it - one can easily imagine the half-hour film it was originally conceived as - but at a lean 73 minutes, there's no wasted screentime.
Between its careful, measured direction, its flirtatious frotting with genre tropes, and above all its surreal performances, Luz is a stunning debut for Singer, its 16mm texture only adding to its hazy strangeness. General audiences may turn the film off, or flick to the next item on their Netflix list, before the first scene even finishes. If they continue, they might become enraged at its disregard for linear storytelling. But for patient, thoughtful viewers, Luz has a lot to offer. It's sure to do well on the festival circuit. Fingers crossed it finds an audience beyond as well.