As the 2015 and 2016 film festival circuit rolled along, I kept getting asked if I had seen Claire Carré‘s debut feature Embers. Invariably – and embarrassingly – my answer was always a pained “ugh…no! I need to!” I’m not going to beat myself up too badly about that as every person who attends several film festivals a year ends up somehow missing a major film at some point, but without exception the feeling people expressed about the film was overwhelmingly positive. With 37 (!) festival screenings and many, many awards I’m glad I finally got to see the film as it’s been released on VOD as well as in some major market theaters across the U.S. I encourage you not to miss this wonderful debut feature by a woman who has a bright future in filmmaking.
As Embers opens we meet Guy and Girl (Jason Ritter and Iva Gocheva) as they wake up in a dilapidated room on a small mattress. Although they were asleep together as we faded in, it quickly becomes evident these two no longer recognize or even know one another which is indeed peculiar. But as several somewhat interwoven stories begin to unfurl, we discover some kind of disease or illness has spread across the earth causing people to forget almost everything long term as well as short.
We meet former scientist “Teacher” (Tucker Smallwood) who, like many of us who have lost a thought yet it remains on the tip of our tongue, knows something about this mental fugue state but alas, cannot remember what he knew. An uninfected bourgeois father (Roberto Cots) keeps his lovely teenage daughter Miranda (Greta Fernandez) safely under lock and key in a bunker but what kind of life is lived when there are no new memories being formed? There’s “Guardian” (Matthew Goulish) who is a kind soul, willing to take “Boy” (Silvan Friedman) under his wing for protection until he forgets who the kid is every few minutes. Other oddballs wander in and out of other characters stories and it’s never really clear that they’re among the infected yet they clearly have something “off” about them. Some seem trapped in a hazy state of arrested development while others are an embodiment of thuggish Id, reaping destruction everywhere they go. This is a dystopia but much like the characters in the film itself, we the viewer never know what happened or really, what’s going on. That sounds like a bad thing but it all gels with the film.
There’s much to like in Carré‘s impressive film. The visuals are often breathtaking and the use of sets and scenes shot in Poland, New York and Indiana all give a disjointed, eerie overall feeling to the film. All of the performances are sneakily solid and the relationship between Ritter’s “Guy” and Gocheva’s “Girl” is one of the more heart wrenching in recent memory. But the real standout here is Carré herself who’s created a fully realized world presented in a fragmented, almost impressionistic way.
While certainly not the first low-budget filmmaker to try and depict a sad, hopeless and apocalyptic future onscreen, Carré does so by placing the audience in a similar situation to the characters onscreen. We don’t know what’s going on and we really don’t know who these people are. We may never know, just like them. Yet she also imbues the story with intriguing ideas (one character gets stuck on the mantra “how can I know that I don’t know,” which is much headier and introspective than this brief description) and clever nods to the idea of memory. But perhaps the biggest coup Carré pulls off is getting us to somehow really care about all of the characters here even though aside from very, very basic character strokes, there’s not much we can know. They in fact, don’t know themselves which makes for some striking moments which I can only think a very base instinct of caring for our fellow man takes over, causing us to care.
– Don R. Lewis (@ThatDonLewis)