Berlinale 2023 review: Mammalia (Sebastian Mihăilescu)

“Mihăilescu can boast a style that may be close to some old masters but distinct enough to show his own voice.”

Influences and references abound in Sebastian Mihăilescu’s debut feature Mammalia, an eerie and alienating comedy about gender roles and boundaries that elicits intrigue if not passion but is a promising start for this young Romanian director. The absurdities of Roy Andersson, the dangers of cults from films like The Wicker Man or Midsommar, and even the giallo horror of Suspiria can all be seen in Mihăilescu’s meticulously composed film that has a loose narrative but a tight grip on atmosphere. Even though its conclusion might be befuddling to some and too on the thematic nose to others, Mammalia nevertheless seems bound to gain a small following among those who count themselves as fans of any of the mentioned references (in particular Andersson fans, if they can imagine a more sinister version of the good-natured Swedish director).

Camil (István Téglás) is a 39-year-old man who is slowly losing his grip on the women in his life. At work he is belittled and reprimanded by female co-workers and superiors, and his girlfriend Andreea (Mãlina Manovici) has joined a mysterious fertility cult, causing a rift between them. Camil, stuck in traditional ideas about gender roles, falls into crisis as he desperately tries to regain control over the elusive Andreea. But the closer he gets to her, the more he loses his male identity. Once he infiltrates the secret community at their remote hideaway near a lake, he is doomed. If only he had listened to the ferryman warning him of the lake…

Shot on glorious 16mm by cinematographer Barbu Bălășoiu, what is most striking about Mammalia is the way Mihăilescu constructs the frame. Long takes of impassive characters or banal conversations while the meat of the scene is taking place in the background or entirely off-screen give the film an off-kilter tone that clearly renders it as a comedy, despite the synth-heavy score (courtesy of Polish musician Piotr Kurek) and the sound design often infusing scenes with horror elements. Mihăilescu also plays with this visually, for instance clearly evoking Nosferatu when he has Camil’s shadow (very) slowly creeping across the naked body of Andreea sleeping; other scenes remind one of Panos Cosmatos’ modern cult classic Mandy. But Mammalia is a thing of his own because Mihăilescu keeps mixing in a lighter element, either through visual tricks or defusing a sinister tone with banal conversations between characters whose sole function is to counter said tone.

Mihăilescu’s discourse on gender isn’t exactly subtle, and towards the end of Mammalia it becomes downright blunt, but it is brought with enough panache to overcome that heavy messaging. When it looks at traditional gender identities and what masculinity means to men, and how it affects them when that idea of masculinity is challenged, it lays the satire on thick but is unsettling and laced with enough absurdism to avoid being preachy and too easy. Paired with its long (at times too long) takes, this makes Mammalia somewhat impenetrable, but as an exponent of the next generation of Romanian directors, trying to follow in the footsteps of some illustrious predecessors, Mihăilescu can boast a style that may be close to some old masters but distinct enough to show his own voice.

(c) Image copyright: microFILM