Allure

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Allure
"Allure is a film full of claustrophobic tension."

Fresh from playing a woman who can't recall her past in Westworld, Evan Rachel Wood takes on a character who couldn't be more different, a woman so weighed down by her past that at time she seems to be struggling just to breathe. From the very first scene, her Laura is presented as a danger to others, somebody with serious boundary issues who deals with her pain by taking it out on whoever is around her. she probably wouldn't have a job if she weren't working for her father (played by Denis O'Hare), but it's through that job that she finds her way into an even more fraught situation. Abusive, manipulative and difficult to like - at least to begin with - she is nonetheless compelling to watch. The question of how she came to be this way unfolds as a mystery in the background of this disturbing drama.

Much of Laura's anger and need for control expresses itself through her sexuality. She has a habit of going to extremes. There's also an intense element of need there - passing remarks hint at a history of latching onto people in the stubborn belief that they will solve all her problems. When her cleaning job takes her into the home of unhappy 16-year-old girl Eva (Julia Sarah Stone), these behaviours soon come to the fore. Eva is frustrated by life with her mother so Laura persuades her to move in with her - in secret, of course - and gradually draws her into a sexual relationship. As her obsession grows, she becomes more and more controlling. It's plain that this situation can't end well.

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This is one of those films that translates a little awkwardly between the US and the UK, with differing ages of consent and different ideas about when a child becomes an adult, but whatever one is used to, it's impossible to view this relationship as healthy. The power differential between the two is massive, even before violence enters the picture. Waif-like Eva, who seems quite a bit younger than she is, is clearly overwhelmed by the transformation in her supposed friend. Stone is superb in conveying competing feelings of fear, resentment, gratitude, guilt and protectiveness. She soon comes to understand how broken Laura is but what her inexperience makes much harder to understand is that there's really nothing she can do to fix it.

Writer/directors Carlos and Jason Sanchez take characters one might think it impossible to sympathise with and bring out their humanity in unexpected ways. Central to this is Laura's troubled relationship with her father, who seems endlessly patient but whose tendency to keep her close, even in her late twenties, may be as suffocating to her as her attentions are to Eva. Hints of darker things in their shared past give her room to lay blame but that, in turn, impedes her ability to take control of her own life. The crushing power of her self-destruction pushes Eva to the sidelines even whilst she insists that the girl is central to her life. Played out mostly as a three-hander, the film shifts perspectives with a deliberate awkwardness that highlights Laura's inability to see beyond herself - and parallels three characters who are all, in their different ways, need to take responsibility for themselves in order to survive.

With much of the action shot in cramped spaces, shifting into smaller ones for the most troubling scenes, Allure is a film full of claustrophobic tension. We spend much of our time looking full into the actors' faces, with a final, lingering shot recalling one of Hitchcock's favourite perspectives. Some viewers will no doubt be repelled by the subject matter and there's a lot here that deliberately evokes emotional and moral discomfort, but it's never gratuitous. This is bold filmmaking with a great deal to say.

Reviewed on: 12 May 2018
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When adult Laura offers teenage Eva an escape from her repressive home life, the unbalanced pairing brings into question dynamics of age and maturity, dominance and submission.
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Festivals:

Palm Springs 2018

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