One of the most exciting things about smaller film festivals is the possibility of seeing the kind of movie that one might not get to see otherwise. That’s what makes Tomas Street’s Fugue such a great discovery.
The film opens with the two definitions of the word “fugue” on the screen and then cuts to establishing exterior shots of a house and a shed. Slightly anxious music plays over these images before the title of the film appears on the screen. Fugue’s first narrative thread — an amnesia victim searching for clues about his identity — dovetails nicely with the audience’s desire to understand what’s happening. It’s a great synthesis of exposition and dialogue that never feels clunky or forced.
A man wakes up from what appears to be a mid-afternoon nap and seems confused about the location of items in his room. Then a woman comes home and the man asks, “Who are you?”
The woman introduces herself to the man as Helen. She explains that his name is Malcolm, and that she’s his wife. She also reminds him that he had a car accident, and the resulting head injury means he needs to take pills every two hours to help his memory return. So far so good… until Malcolm notices a tiny hand print in the steam on the bathroom mirror.
There is no music to direct the audience on how to feel. Instead, Fugue expects the audience to pay close attention to facial expressions, body language, dialogue, tone of voice and mise-en-scène. As a result, every detail takes on enormous significance. This comes in handy when Malcolm is subjected to another brain injury and Fugue seems to start all over again. And then again.
By fracturing the narrative in this way, Fugue feels like a story told by an unreliable narrator. Add in the appearance of several characters who manipulate information, and there are multiple levels of truth in the film. Although the locations and cast remain consistent throughout the film, the difference in the way the characters inhabit the filmic space provides tantalizing clues for the audience to try and solve the mystery of what’s happening on screen. Little details that seemed out of place earlier begin to take on more significance. Viewers must question earlier assumptions and rethink what they understand about these characters.
In addition to its fascinating narrative structure, Fugue utilizes some clever, repeated shots (most notably, one inside of a closet) to denote shifts in the story and in the power structure of the characters within. While throughout the film, one may care more about finding out what’s happening, at the end, Fugue finally reveals more of the deeply human aspects of its characters, subverting viewers’ expectations of what they think might happen and forcing them, once again, to reevaluate what they think they know. Intriguingly, the central mystery of Fugue turns out to be a MacGuffin, or rather, a MacGuffin wrapped inside yet another enigma.
Although Fugue is writer and director Tomas Street’s first feature length, his many years of experience as a script supervisor have clearly helped him to craft layered stories and complicated characters. If the film has any major flaws, it’s the somewhat bland art direction and production design, which often looks like the photos in an Ikea catalogue instead of real life. When Fugue ventures forth into more gritty textures, all the elements come together to create something genuinely dynamic and compelling. Keep an eye out for Tomas Street’s next film; he shows incredible promise.
Leslie Hatton (@popshifter) is a Fannibal, an animal lover, a music maven and a horror movie junkie. She created and managed Popshifter from 2007 – 2017, and also contributes to Biff Bam Pop, Diabolique Magazine, Everything Is Scary, Modern Horrors, Rue Morgue and more.