Berlinale 2021 review: Forest – I See You Everywhere (Bence Fliegauf)

Six conversations, nay, six arguments, cryptically bookended by a granddaughter and her possibly dead grandpa, are the driving force of Bence Fliegauf’s Forest – I See You Everywhere. Fliegauf burst onto the scene nearly 20 years ago with Forest, which wowed audiences at the 2003 Berlinale with its string of vignettes focusing on couples in crisis. His latest film, in competition in Berlin this year, is essentially a sequel to that film, which seems to be an odd return to where it all began for Fliegauf. Strong acting cannot mask the been-there-done-that feeling that Forest – I See You Everywhere leaves behind.

After a short opening scene in which a young girl finds her grandpa either sleeping permanently or just taking a short nap, we are hurled into the conflict of a teenage girl (Lilla Kizlinger, who won the first Best Supporting Performance award for this; several other actors in this film could have won as well) rehearsing a school presentation in front of her father. What starts as a recollection of her mother’s fatal car accident soon develops an accusatory tone and reproaches fly back and forth. She leaves the house with their conflict unresolved.

What follows are five similar single-scene shorts in which two, sometimes three people have tense conversations, invariably about someone who isn’t part of the discussion. A fight over an ex who may have gone missing. A couple who have problems conceiving and see different ways out of this conundrum. A son and his stepmother’s conversation after being accused of having an affair by his father. A young boy and his deeply religious mother clashing over fantasy role-playing being a gateway to Satan. Two friends trying to convince a hitman to take out a quack healer responsible for harm to an ex-girlfriend.

Shot handheld and close to the action, with nary a wide shot in sight, Forest – I See You Everywhere cranks up the claustrophobia to heighten the tension. The jittery camerawork, frequently shifting its focus to inanimate objects, is as restless as the characters it registers. It’s like being inside the ring during a boxing match, and the referee is missing. The sparring is in itself a joy to watch, the actors throwing jabs left and right, but finding a thematic idea behind each of these miniatures is like groping in the dark. Forest – I See You Everywhere is mostly a film for an actor to sink their teeth in, with dialogue that often verges on the expository but has the kind of bite many an actor relishes. On the whole, however, the film can be exhausting in its grim unpleasantness, so when the final scene offers literal light in the darkness it feels like emerging from a black ocean of misery in which you held your breath as long as you could. This is not the return to the form of Fliegauf’s Silver Bear-winning Just the Wind that some of us hoped for, though those who appreciate fine acting may find a lot of rewards in this film.