All You Need Is Death


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

All You Need Is Death
"It’s solidly rooted in the ordinary and yet its habit of drawing out small absurdities means that ordinary things and places won’t seem so safe after you’ve seen it." | Photo: Frightfest

If everything in the universe can ultimately be reduced to mathematics, to numbers and equations, then the process of taking those numbers and forming them into new sequences, constructing new possibilities, is found in its purest form in music. Existing at the interface of the possible and the predicted, music can be used to encode all sorts of ideas, and once it gets into our heads, it can be very hard to get out. Paul Duane’s All You Need Is Death (try saying that without getting a tune in your head) marries this idea with folk horror to impressively unsettling effect.

Screening as part of the popular Frightfest strand at the 2024 Glasgow Film Festival, the film follows young couple Anna (Simone Collins) and Aleks (Charlie Maher) as they travel around Ireland in search of old folk songs which might not yet have been captured for posterity. This isn’t a purely academic exercise on their part: Anna also makes some money as a singer, and is always keen to perform something that her audience hasn’t heard before. When they learn of a song that has apparently been hidden away in one small village for centuries, now known only to one person, Anna decides that they need to invest in sharpening up their skills so that they can track it down. Attending the class by expert Agnes (Catherine Siggins) leads to complications she had not anticipated, but what comes next will take them in a wholly unexpected direction and introduce something much, much darker.

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“How do you say ‘I love you,’ in Irish?” asks the ageing keeper of the son, Rita (Olwen Fouéré), who prefers to conduct her meetings from inside the wardrobe.” One cannot, she points out. The most obvious expression, ‘Tá an grá agat domsa,’ literally means ‘the love for you is on me’ – it describes not an action but the experience of being overwhelmed or possessed by something. This is no delicate, considerate love, but something volatile and all-consuming. That’s the love referred to in the song, and the song is a curse. Although she no longer knows the language of its origin, it must be preserved just as is, and heard only by women, and never written down. Anna shows respect for this, at least initially, but soon matters are out of her hands; and when she tries to sing the song from memory, and as her life undergoes a sudden shift, she recognises something of that terrible love within herself.

Unrequited love in young women is generally treated as a bit of a joke – something to be pitied or scorned. Its destructive power is overlooked. Here, the danger of love is explored in multiple forms: in romance, in family relationships, in the divine. The love of music gives way to obsession, the love of discovery to a sort of compulsion which affects everyone who gets too close. Here, it is all too easy to get lost in an idea to the exclusion of all other concerns. There is always something beautiful in purity, and what could be purer than death?

Along the way, of course, there is the grotesque. As one character undergoes an unsettling transformation, a still darker echo of history’s anorexic saints, the original actor is replaced by Ben Stewardson, a performer whose contorted movements – with the help of some prosthetics – deliver a graceful, creepy form of body horror. Elsewhere, simple black smudges, like the ones one sees in the corners of rooms when under the influence of certain drugs, undergoing a schizoid experience or just massively fatigued, extend out of shadows to disturbing effect. Careful foreshadowing adds to the effect. Appropriately, words have a power of their own.

Though there are a couple of awkward shifts of pace towards the end, All You Need Is Death knows how to cast a spell. It’s solidly rooted in the ordinary and yet its habit of drawing out small absurdities means that ordinary things and places won’t seem so safe after you’ve seen it. Like a good folk tale, it’s full of odd details which your brain will keep returning to. Some ideas, once they’ve taken hold, are very hard to escape.

Reviewed on: 15 Mar 2024
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All You Need Is Death packshot
A young couple records and collects folk songs in rural Ireland, selling them to a mysterious, rich buyer. When rumours of a song never-before-heard reach the couple, they find themselves in an uneasy alliance with a music professor to discover an ancient song.

Director: Paul Duane

Writer: Paul Duane

Starring: Simone Collins, Charlie Maher, Olwen Fouéré, Catherine Siggins, Barry McKiernan, Benedict Stewardson

Year: 2023

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: Ireland

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