CIFF After Dark Review: Oliver Kienle’s ‘Four Hands’

Four Hands, a Danish film from director Oliver Kienle, can be described as one part psychological thriller and another part family ghost story, though none of the people I saw it with seemed to care much about the spiritual aspect of the film. It’s understandable — there’s a lot going on to get excited about. The movie opens with two young girls, Sophie and Jessica, hiding while their parents are murdered in the same room. In one of the film’s most powerful images, Sophie covers Jessica’s mouth and eyes so her sister can’t scream and doesn’t have to watch the butchering of their mother and father. This idea of a child protecting their sibling from such horrible trauma, while at the same forcing themselves to take on the psychological abuse, forms the powerful foundation which the entire film is built on.

Twenty years later and the girls are still living in their parents’ house, a symbol of their inability to emotionally escape the events of that day. They’ve grown into two distinctly different people, with Sophie being the harsher, more volatile of the two, and Jessica being softer and more anxious to move on with her life as a piano player. Their reaction to the news of the murderers’ release is vastly different. Jessica wants to let it go; Sophie wants revenge. The two fight and a sudden accident unexpectedly takes Sophie’s life. Jessica, now alone, tries to finally move on but is plagued with blackouts and loss of time. It becomes apparent that Sophie may still get what she wants, but she’ll just have to use Jessica’s body to do it. One could read this as an exceptional case of split personality disorder, but the idea of a restless spirit possessing its sister in order to handle unfinished business seems more fun to me. Maybe it’s the season.

Beyond the crafty plot, Four Hands is sublime and arresting in its imagery. It moves like a great piece of music, sometimes sweeping and frenetic, while other times it allows viewers to collectively breathe in its stillness. This visual musicality is aided by some welcome choices in editing. Several times throughout, there’s a decision not to cut on a physical impact or a “jump scare” style moment, instead using the mise-en-scene and the slick movement of the camera to emphasize the action. It’s a choice that allows an audience to engage with what’s happening in the scene, more so than the typical rapid-edits and shaky camera that pound the viewer like a boxer on a body bag. At a Q&A after the screening, Kienle mentioned that the film was made for “only” 1.5 million Euros, and that forced them to keep their shot list low. This is perhaps further proof that financial constraints can be an effective stimulant for creativity.

At the same Q&A, an audience member praised the creative violence of the film, saying it was “better than all the gun stuff we have here.” She wasn’t wrong. Four Hands isn’t really an action film, but when it does get violent, it does so with gusto and makes sure viewers feel it. There’s a particular scene with a fork that had me squirming in my seat. I squirmed more when I realized it was real, albeit with a hard rubber fork, and not some CG fakery. However, I do question the implication that one type of violence can be better or more tolerable than another, particularly in regards to a film that, at its core, struggles with whether redemptive violence is an acceptable way to relieve traumatic stress. Keinle’s film does indeed revel in its action, but it does so while constantly posing the question as to whether it’s okay. This kind of introspection separates Four Hands from most films, more so than its style or ingenious setup.

Jae K. Renfrow (@jaekrenfrow)is a Chicago actor, writer and director His first short film, Amore Divino e Profano, is being edited right now. He works with his wife Gail, and you can read his writing and see some of their video essays at jaeetgail.com.

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