Friday 25 September 2020

Split shifts: "The Ground Beneath My Feet"

The Ground Beneath My Feet, a very striking, quietly unsettling contemporary horror from Austrian writer-director Marie Kreutzer, opens like Toni Erdmann with a new, urgent, potentially tragic dimension. Kreutzer's subject is a work/life balance that's all out of whack - here, dangerously so, in that the life part of the equation is now actively under threat. Just one of the film's nasty surprises is that it's not necessarily the life we think. We meet corporate alpha-female Lola (Valerie Pachner) as she's started splitting her time between Vienna, where she lives in one of those sterile, underfurnished housing pods that have become cinematic shorthand for the modern worker ant, and Rostock, where she's dispatched in her role as a junior executive for a management consultancy firm. Her latest layover, however, will be interrupted by news that her schizophrenic sister Conny (Pia Hierzegger) has taken an overdose of pills and been institutionalised. The bulk of the film concerns the demand this places on Lola, now dutybound to juggle managing a sister in a state of some distress, who keeps phoning out of the blue with tales of the abuses being visited against her, with her ongoing professional commitments - a conflict of interest intensified by the relationship Lola's in with the boss who's been mentoring her (Mavie Hörbiger). In a world where time is most often designated as money, might taking time out to care for a loved one come to seem like unpaid labour? A corollary: is vulnerability seen as a liability within a system whose chief operators are paid vast sums to project strength? "Having a burnout in our field is like having leprosy," Lola's boss informs (maybe warns) her - which may be why Kreutzer's camera returns, time and again, to the sight of its harried heroine pounding the spin bike, trying to make herself indestructable.

The film is as tense as any recent supernatural horror, but its tension is organic: it's one somebody's felt, rather than plucked out of the air or otherwise cooked up. For a good while, that tension derives from no more than the series of phonecalls Conny puts into Lola, interrupting her sis just as she's getting down to sealing a deal or making out with her galpal. (A simple ringtone can be enough to send a shiver down your spine.) Then: a perspective shift that suggests nothing we've seen in the first 45 minutes is entirely as it seemed. That wrenching twist is both consolidated and to some degree concealed by the refrigerated realism Kreutzer is trading in, the close attention she pays to the callous, offhand, forever impersonal detail of modern office life. You likely won't notice that something's awry - until it becomes clear, come the film's second half, that it is. (I suspect employees at certain less than ethical companies will have experienced the same creeping, then sinking feeling.) Casting Pachner was the masterstroke: the experience of watching The Ground Beneath My Feet is that of watching a tightly sculpted, initially impermeable block of ice, and starting to notice the cracks appearing in that cool facade. Kreutzer's framing and cutting do just about everything they can to pile the pressure on. She makes masterly use of another patient on Conny's ward to undermine Lola's sense of reality; by the distinctive closing credits, with their subliminal flashes of another story entirely, it is as though the film itself has cracked along with everything else. (More broken boundaries.) What starts along Toni Erdmann lines thus ends up like a mash-up between that movie and its director's previous The Forest for the Trees, about a teacher going over the edge. Yet it also struck me that there's a clear correlation between these corridors of corporate power and the hallways and between-spaces Polanski so memorably filmed in Repulsion: Kreutzer, announcing herself here as a major talent, has an eye for how the insecurities of the professional realm have started to creep into our private lives.

The Ground Beneath My Feet is available to stream from today via MUBI UK.

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