Review: The Complex Forms (Fabio D’Orta)

“The production team, and D’Orta in particular, certainly show skill and can take pride in an original idea and an air of creepiness; if only they had also shown a bit of madness and pushed harder and deeper into the film’s potentially unsettling setup.”

An older man, in evident need of funds, signs a contract to have his body possessed for twelve days by some unknown force, in exchange for money. He waits at a villa alongside other older men, doing menial tasks until his period of possession begins. “How will I know when it starts?” he asks, and is told a crack of thunder will signal the start of the process.

Fabio D’Orta’s The Complex Forms has a great premise; I can’t think of a similar setup across the wide range of possession-based films out there. Though the film is deliberate and slow, questions will pop up while watching – what will possess these men, and when? How will it feel? How will it take place? Will it hurt? Will it be surprising? Answers will come as the film progresses, though perhaps not too clearly. Confined within the halls, rooms and garden of a vast villa, the protagonist makes friends and cooks, thunder strikes, and literal monsters arrive. The process of possession begins, one man at a time. Soon our protagonist is anxiously asking questions; it looks more like these monsters are devouring them, not possessing. He isn’t sure he wants to go on with the contract. “And who will stop me leaving? You?” he asks the director. “No, them!” is the blunt reply.

In keeping with the modus operandi of the Slamdance festival where it got an honourable mention in the fest’s main section, The Complex Forms is a micro-budget effort, with D’Orta taking the reins in directing, writing, cinematography, score and special effects (much like the rise of Gareth Edwards, we are starting to see a new breed of filmmakers with solid VFX grounding come through). What kind of film is The Complex Forms though? It’s hard to tell. It isn’t scary, it isn’t disturbing, it isn’t a thriller, though it is at times gripping. It isn’t especially surreal, and I don’t think it is allegorical or especially mythical, though selling your soul and regretting it has a range of analogous parallels. Mostly it is a sort of somnambulant formalism, leaning into eeriness, that pays homage to Antonioni, Resnais, Bergman and other filmmakers who prefer spartan settings and elliptical dialogue. It is evidently low-budget, and for that it should be absolutely commended; but I must admit I had hoped to see something that would surprise me, and I think without the creativity of, say, Jamin Winans’ 2008 micro-budgeted film Ink, The Complex Forms is restricted to a few special effects and perhaps not enough playfulness with its camera and setting (when it is playful, for example in a couple of upside-down shots, it is much more effective).

Does it form an organic whole? A formalist, black-and-white cinematic Borges-style short monster story with special effects? Probably not. Despite an original concept, the elements feel a bit too cannibalised from other, better films. Filming in monochrome has its advantages; it can focus the viewer’s eye on detail, and lined faces can look exquisite. It is shorthand for the ethereal, the abstract and the historical, and it absolutely makes the process of lighting easier, most notably on the FX.

But it also comes with risks; it is a noticeable and blatant allusion to cinematic resonance, and by choosing black and white you open yourself up to comparisons to other films that have also made this choice. And, given monochrome’s power to amplify an image, there is a great onus on the cinematographers to regularly show us striking, perfectly composed scenes. I do think some of the images here are very good – each time our protagonist looks out a window, a swirling camera over trees turning to a flock of birds, a close-up of an eye – but others are just shots that invite the question: is this the best they could do with this shot at this time? The film is much less handsome, for example, than The Lighthouse, Werckmeister Harmonies, or even last year’s El Conde or the black-and-white scenes in Poor Things. All films with a much bigger budget, to be sure, but also films that really lean into their aesthetic, while The Complex Forms only intermittently flourishes. It wants to be in their league, but can’t quite reach it. With a bit more edge and a push into the darkness it could have though.

The special effects are well done. The monsters here are decorated, oil-black behemoths, more Gilliam-esque than Alien. Likely the budget constraints mean we see great, mighty black creatures that unfortunately are limited in how they can be portrayed interacting with the scene. In the end the film fizzles out, unable to show us a satisfactory denouement, and D’Orta uses exposition to tell us what we would have seen, rather than actually showing us. The Complex Forms is best watched by newer filmmakers wanting to see what can be achieved with a few actors, one location, and a bit of special effects cleverness. The production team, and D’Orta in particular, certainly show skill and can take pride in an original idea and an air of creepiness; if only they had also shown a bit of madness and pushed harder and deeper into the film’s potentially unsettling setup.