Relic: #LFF20 review

Year: 2020
Duration: 90 minutes
Director: Natalie Erika James
Writers: Natalie Erika James, Christian White
Starring: Robyn Nevin, Emily Mortimer, Bella Heathcote

By Caz Armstrong

“Relic”, the debut feature from Japanese-Australian director Natalie Erika James is a deeply unsettling horror with something very particular to say. A 90-minute metaphor for the devastating changes that dementia inflicts on sufferers and their families, the film is about intergenerational support, familial inheritance, and the rotten thief that is dementia.  

Grandmother Edna (Robyn Nevin) has been missing from her Australian countryside home for some days. Her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) go to her house to help look for her and support the police investigation. On arriving at the home they discover a number of notes Edna has left for herself and strange locks on the doors, suggesting that her mind is starting to slip.

Pretty soon Edna suddenly shows up again, none the worse off for the unexplained absence, and adamant that everything is ok. She is definitely starting to unravel though, lashing out at small things and acting very unlike herself. Is she losing her mind or is there some larger evil afoot in the creaky old house?

Many scenes are dimly lit or use a desaturated colour pallet. Despite being in the countryside we spend most of our time in the cramped and cluttered house or the woods nearby. It’s claustrophobic and unsettling with little relief. On top of this discomfort there is a recurring motif of mould growing inside the home and on various people’s bodies in the form of dark bruise-like marks. It’s a pollutant that infects whatever it touches and spreads unencumbered. If you consider that the home here represents the mind this mould now takes on a deeper and darker meaning.

We ponder whether Edna is suffering from dementia or if an evil external force is really plaguing her. Meanwhile her physical memories – in the form of boxes of photographs and papers – are polluted and corrupted just like her mind. As much as she might try squirrel it all safely away she can’t stop the spread of whatever is infecting and destroying it.

“Relic” is heavy on metaphor but somewhat lighter on plot.”

For the lion’s share of the film there are no direct scares but more of a tense and unsettling atmosphere. It’s the feeling of knowing something’s not right but we’re not sure what it is. We can’t trust Edna’s actions and don’t know where we stand. There are strange noises in the house we can’t trace.

As we move into the final act though things take on a more direct approach. Physical danger and violence take over from the more emotional discomfort. The house becomes even more of a physical embodiment of inaccessible memories and the entrapment of dementia.

“Relic” is heavy on metaphor but somewhat lighter on plot. The comparison between dementia and demonic possession makes sense when you consider how a person with dementia can sadly become a shell of their former self, memories and personality rotted away. But it’s hardly a compassionate approach. When body horror and physical violence come to the fore one wonders whether this is a helpful way to explore something so devastating.

One saving grace is the theme of compassion and familial bonds. The generations are brought together and each champion the option they see best for Edna’s future. Despite their previous physical distance all three women are now closely connected. This support is the glimmer of hope as the film descends into violence and terror. It brings a poignancy to counter the shocking images we see.

But this violence still doesn’t sit right with me given what the film is trying to explore. People with dementia may feel like they’re becoming something other than themselves, desperately trying to cling to memories before they are polluted or lost. But when this embodiment becomes all-out snarling murderous body horror then compassion is lost. You can try to claw it back but once you’ve gone that far the damage is done.

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