Small towns, wherever they may be, tend to carry with them a rather distinctively suffocating burden. Those who have visited such places, either extensively or not, know the feeling; sensory awareness seems to have been filtered out with any discernible definition of time and space upon arrival. You either go with the flow or get caught up in its aggressive vortex, in which case surrendering to your surroundings seems to be the easiest path to contentment.
This particular sensation has enjoyed its share of cinematic representation in the past, though few have captured it as purely as THE POSSESSED (aka THE LADY OF THE LAKE), the haunting debut from Luigi Bazzoni and Franco Rosselini (the same pair behind genre-bending phantasmagoria FOOTPRINTS ON THE MOON and boozy Franco Nero-starring giallo THE FIFTH CORD). The coastal village which serves as the duo’s muse is one of exquisite and often unseen (or unspoken of) secrets, home to the same lost souls that it lures into its eternally intoxicating web from the outside. The existential dread exhibited isn’t so much inspired as it is painfully extracted and inseparable from the setting, tightening its grip on the audience until they no longer have ample room to squirm.
Like many a weary traveler walking directly into the jaws of death, the unlikely hero in this ghastly tale is a writer in search of a lost lover. Bernard (Peter Baldwin) finds himself chasing repressed guilt and ruminating over potentially misleading memories in a place where clear consciences appear to be in rather short supply though, as he makes very clear throughout his unorthodox journey, he is among familiar faces.
This isn’t to say that his obsession is any easier to transcend as a result; almost immediately after setting foot in town, the residents inform Bernard that his woman has committed suicide under some disconcertingly mysterious circumstances, and they don’t wish to elaborate any further on that. Proving himself to be a determined and self-sufficient fellow, the outsider fails to abandon his personal agenda in favor of preserving the nastier secrets festering just below the surface, even when the townspeople threaten its stability. The unwelcoming unease slowly creeps in from the dimly-lit streets to the musky hotel where most of the subconscious digging takes place, in no time obscuring the line between reality, delusion, and dream.
Although he’s been here before, the writer feels no less alienated by his circumstances or disturbed by the colorful characters that he encounters during his trek towards the truth. A faceless woman in white strolls by the shimmering lake as if bound to its magnetism, the local butcher leers impassively from beneath his enveloping wooden canopy, the innkeeper’s hospitality is quite obviously one built around artifice, and the local drunkard’s abyssal cries in the witching hour may in fact be far less insignificant than they at first appear.. Everyone harbors a perversion that they’re not keen to speak of, and the only “real” people are those not pretending.
When all else fails, and he realizes that those around him won’t be of much help, Bernard decidedly probes his own imperfect perception, rendered beautifully in either piercingly white light or with softer, no less exceedingly hallucinatory intimacy. Leonida Barboni’s appropriately detached yet – when absolutely necessary – delectably invasive cinematography effectively draws more than a few connections between the darkest recesses of a creative mind and the environment it embraces, with the town’s exteriors evocatively photographed in what feels a lot like the twilight. Such as it is, this is a lot like a zombie movie without the zombies, or a giallo thriller without the killer, wherein the deep shadows and snow-covered cemeteries feel so much like home.
Baldwin makes for an exceptional protagonist, bringing a great deal of introspection and genuine vulnerability to a seemingly cultivated exterior; so much more so than his charismatic demeanor would initially suggest. The commitment to his point-of-view is commendable while simultaneously proving to be one of the film’s few genuine faults; for example, we certainly could do without some of the on-the-nose narration, and towards the end the story gets a little wrapped up in Bernard’s mania for its own good, thus diminishing its dramatic impact.
Even so, these are minor quibbles; this is a hypnotic monochrome nightmare that sucks you in and spits you out entirely at its own will. Some films politely invite us into their headspace whereas this is one that pushes you into it, headfirst. We wander, we wonder, we pace, we lose faith – all to the faint sound of an unloving breeze. It’s a compelling and ultimately hopeless cycle; perhaps not everyone’s cup of (black) tea, but when writhing in such formally arresting melancholia, the experience itself can hardly be equated with misery. Much like the small-town ambience which provides such consistent inspiration, it’s a kind of purgatory on Earth that one feels almost inexplicably compelled to revisit immediately upon departure. Call it supernatural separation anxiety – as familiar as it is frighteningly unfathomable.