Rarely should anyone accuse a film of having too much mystery. We don’t want to be spoon-fed details, exposition takes us out of the picture, and it’s important to dig for clues no matter how difficult that may be. Having said that, it’s equally frustrating when a story feels like it’s being delivered from halfway across the room by three very different people who keep chattering on as they walk further and further away, despite the laundry machine clunking around or the dishwasher churning water nearby. The story becomes a struggle, adding further weight and expectations to whatever conclusion awaits beyond, which is then typically marred by disappointment. Claudia Llosa’s latest film, Aloft, conjures up this sort of chaos. It’s a film largely about faith and guilt, and yet you feel none of it while watching the story thaw out.
Aloft has a two-fold narrative told 20 years apart: On one end, Jennifer Connelly plays Nana Kunning, a struggling mother with two young boys whose peculiar talents lead her to eventually become a renowned artist and spiritual healer. On the other, Cillian Murphy is her estranged son, Ivan, all grown up and bitter as hell, living a reclusive family life as a falconer. The stories unite, however, when Ivan’s suckered by a mysterious young journalist named Jannia Ressmore (Mélanie Laurent), who convinces him to take a trip with her under false pretenses. Quickly, we learn that she has her own secrets and demons — let’s just say Ivan’s not exactly the person she needs to see — and so we slowly watch as the two piece together their own respective puzzles. Sadly, what follows is a collection of icy cold tales plagued with frostbite.
Naturalism is much to blame. Llosa shatters any pathos for her characters by being too patient with their crucial details. After all, how are you supposed to feel anything if you hardly know anyone? Instead, she oscillates between three undefined characters — really, it’s two, as Laurent becomes glossy connective tissue — whose scenes tend to unpack more questions than offer any tangible answers. It’s like reading three unfinished scripts by Damon Lindelof in a dark, chilly room for 116 minutes. Whatever emotional resonance Ivan and Jannia’s trip was to have falls wayside as we breathlessly catch up — and that’s not any fault of the viewer, either. Take the film’s redemptive conclusion, for instance, which Llosa fumbles by waiting to drop two essential reveals roughly side by side. There’s just no time to react, which is just baffling given the lengthy runtime.
Still, it’s a gorgeous film. Shot across Manitoba, Aloft captures what feels like a faraway world, one that shines in all its natural beauty and surrealism. Canadian cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc (whose previous film Enemy was similarly sharp and stunning) revels in his native land as he frames each shot to near-perfection amidst the coarse arctic tundra. And it’s one hell of an unforgiving landscape, a place where the wind howls, the snow batters, and the ice pains the eyes. Llosa relies on a handful of visual metaphors throughout, and in some respects, the territory serves as a blank slate for her players. Admittedly, this desolate and strange terrain only furthers the aforementioned confusion, especially as the film embraces more spiritual elements, but it also offers a number of gripping moments. Two words: thin ice.
If it weren’t so jumbled and sterile, Aloft could be a great film. The Peruvian filmmaker is telling a supremely universal story within unique circumstances and that’s always commendable. What’s more, the talent delivers: Connelly charges across each scene with her trademark dramatic flair, Murphy remains an enigmatic lead, while Laurent can strangle the life out of even the shortest dialogue. The problem is that we’re watching them through foggy lenses; they’re walking, crying, screaming, and hugging amidst a fractured design that ices any emotion. There’s just too much mystery at hand, which is a problem when said mystery winds up being the least interesting facet of the film. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for an exhausting mental exercise and interested in experiencing the physical trauma of a polar vortex, well, go forward with Aloft.
Otherwise, enjoy your summer.