A young woman searches for her missing son through a miasma of her memories and dreams in Viko Nikci’s surreal feature debut, Cellar Door.
There’s a quotation from the French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard that gets bandied about a lot in first-year film studies classes, on social media through image macros usually attributed to Quentin Tarantino, and at house parties by blowhards.
It goes something like this: “A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end but not necessarily in that order.”
Cellar Door begins somewhere in the middle of an already muddled story. The camera moves through what looks to be an abandoned house, into a grimy bathroom, and focuses in on a woman who may be dead or drowning in a bathtub.
In an instant, she’s up and out of the water and trying to make sense of the situation. Her question to herself: “What’s the last thing you remember?” We’re intrigued too, asking our own questions and dissecting the minute details in the corner of the frame to tease out the hows and whys of her story.
And then with a sweep of the camera Aidie (Karen Hassan) and the audience are off on a heady, snaking trip through history as memories, dreams and nightmares collide to make the unreal real and the real uncanny and dreadful.
Aidie’s story advances by way of a kind of cinematic free association. Scenes transition from location to location and jump around in time. Aidie is not violently uprooted as much as she is teleported to another place. Wipes and zooms stand in for jump cuts.
The effect is subtle. But there’s definitely something disturbing about the smoothness of the time travel. Throughout the film, editing is handled in such a way as to suggest that we are watching a dream burnt onto celluloid.
In Cellar Door’s first major sequence, Aidie is whisked from her mother’s home to the schoolhouse where she works, to a night club and then to a church. Sometimes she has a perplexed look on her face, as if she’s doing the same mental gymnastics that the audience is in piecing together her story.
In the club, Aidie dances with her boyfriend, Karl (Handsome Devil’s Ruairi O’Connor), and they go to a church where they make love and he promises never to leave her. But a moment later, she finds herself alone at the altar and in the throws of labour.
The jump scares in Cellar Door don’t lurk in dark corners, waiting to leap out. Scares come through surreal jumps of logic. Aidie’s rapid pregnancy and presumed delivery of a baby is something out of a fever dream.
For a time, the film shifts to a punctuated style. Previously masked camera cuts become more abrupt and violent.
The sense of confusion is greater still, as Aidie tries to gather her senses. So too does the audience as more questions need answering.
Aidie finds herself in a support group for unmarried mothers. She is told that this is a place where she and others like her can reclaim their “dignity as beautiful women”.
Throughout the film Aidie revisits the opening sequence of events. Mother’s home, schoolhouse, night club, church. With each run-through she retains some knowledge of her previous journey.
Nikci works editing tools like a potter works clay. The director’s presence is gentle and firm all at once. The depth of Cellar Door is borne out of its stylishness.
Too often films excel at one at the expense of the other, but for Nikci the film’s style and its capturing of the uncanny world of Aidie’s nightmarish struggle reflects the horrific and shameful realities that inspire the film’s story.
Karen Hassan is fantastic as firebrand Aidie. She is often put in what appears to be a hopeless situation, only to come out swinging.
Each loop sees her regain more memories and thus, knowledge to overcome the adversary she faces in the nebulous corridors of the Laundry. Think a hellbent Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz and you begin to approximate the intensity of Hassan’s evolving performance.
A lot of Hassan’s performance sees her acting opposite herself, as Aidie’s reflection addresses her, or through fevered monologues.
The dark hallways of the Laundry form synapse-like connections between past and present. Eventually, Aidie’s nightmare becomes a lucid dream.
It’s Aidie’s defiance and determination that ultimately beat out the darkness. The latter half of the film feels like a more terrifying re-rendering of a Sally Fields-led custody drama.
Cellar Door ends up more sentimental than you might initially expect, but it’s a well-judged pay-off for a film that puts its protagonist, and audience, through the emotional wringer.
For me, the best kind of outcome for a story that highlights the ills and evils of the world is one that leaves room for hopefulness. In its closing moments, Cellar Door presents a great many things to us. We think of birth and death, the evils of the past, of parents and children, and, with the film’s final shot, that there is the possibility of a bright future beyond any darkness.