IFFR 2022 review: Splendid Isolation (Urszula Antoniak)

Splendid Isolation is the work of a dark poet, a director who isn’t afraid to face the darkness to find peace in it, and despite its coldness and deliberate opacity it is indeed a splendid work by a singular artist.”

Sooner or later death comes for us all. Not the happiest of thoughts, but if anything the pandemic has made us aware of our finality more than ever. Polish-Dutch director Urszula Antoniak takes this fact and turns it into a minimalist film that is aesthetically cold, but despite its resolve ends on a note of hope and finding beauty in that finality, through a central relationship whose burning heart is rendered with a keen eye for its passion. Sparse in dialogue and with a cast of just three women (one of whom has no dialogue at all), Splendid Isolation is a triumph in contemplative cinema, an apparently very opaque film that opens itself up once the dots start to connect to create a heartrending ending that burns away the cold of its surroundings. It would be difficult to fully discuss Splendid Isolation without laying out the plot, so those who don’t want to know should stop reading here and discover the puzzle themselves, but it would be remiss not to explain just why this film is so beautifully and tightly written and directed.

The plot is deceptively simple but also shrouded in mystery. Hannah (Anneke Sluiters, in a stunning performance) and Anna (Khadija el Kharraz Alami) have fled to a deserted island. What exactly they are running from is not entirely clear, nor is the reason why Anna insists that Hannah take her medicine. Or why they long for each other but never have physical contact. They have taken up residence in an abandoned modern house in the vast empty space of the island (a neat bit of camera trickery, as the actual house is surrounded by other holiday homes). One day Hannah sees a woman (Abke Haring) on the beach, which sets off a panic in both women. Anna is determined to protect her lover, arming herself with a rifle found in the house, but as the mysterious woman slowly but surely invades their space it is clear the inevitable is going to happen.

There is a shot about halfway through Splendid Isolation that repeats itself near the end, at which point it takes on its full emotional meaning: an overlay of two images, one of Hannah lying on her back, naked, with the other an image of Anna caressing her. The second time, the conclusion that Hannah is dead is easily drawn, yet while this answers many questions it also creates new ones. Suddenly it is clear why the two eschew physical contact throughout, their moments of intimacy shared through glass panes, or why when having a tea they keep their distance. Anna wearing leather gloves throughout makes sense now, as does the metaphorical stranger. But there are other clues that make you wonder how much of what has been shown is fact or a figment of Anna’s imagination. She is clad top-to-bottom in black, a sharp contrast to the pale-skinned Hannah who is more than once draped in a white bed sheet. Is Anna already in mourning? Is the bed sheet a shroud? Is Hannah a ghost, something she clearly resembles when wearing the bed linen while walking around the house in search of Anna? And the abstract painting of a circle, half black, half white: why does Hannah set fire to it? The house itself, almost a fourth character with its maze-like structure and its cold interiors, feels like the waiting room of a funeral home.

Antoniak lost her husband more than a decade ago; it pushed her to write Nothing Personal, her most successful film to date. The pandemic inspired her to confront her fear of death, resulting in a film that finds a balance between hope and denial, perfectly encapsulating that period in which grieving starts subconsciously even before the fateful end is there. Even though COVID is not explicitly mentioned, the two characters isolating themselves has clear parallels with the quarantines and lockdowns we’ve dragged ourselves through in the past two years. As does saying the final goodbye to a loved one, a situation far too many people have found themselves in in recent history. But the message of the film isn’t as dark and cold as it may seem on the surface, ending as it does on a shot of pure beauty, an almost joyful rush for death. Splendid Isolation is the work of a dark poet, a director who isn’t afraid to face the darkness to find peace in it, and despite its coldness and deliberate opacity it is indeed a splendid work by a singular artist who isn’t afraid to not give all the answers.