(The 2017 Slamdance Film Festival kicked off on January 20 and ran through January 26. The HtN staff repped Slamdance hard with reviews like this one, Matthew Lessner’s stalky, sexual thriller Automatic at Sea.)
Let’s just ignore the fact that writer-director Matthew Lessner’s (Darling Darling) Automatic at Sea begins with the closing scene of the film – a narrative device that I despise more than most. Instead, we’ll start seven days prior with the true introduction of Eve (Livia Hiselius), a 22-year-old Swedish woman who is visiting the United States for the very first time. A wealthy American heir, Peter (David Henry Gerson), subsequently welcomes Eve “to the land of the free and home of the brave.” And, before we know it, Eve is airborne in Peter’s airplane en route to Peter’s family’s private island off the coast of New England.
It is important to note that Eve is by no means a naïve foreign tourist, which makes it all the more confounding that she would run away with Peter to some remote, private island. Sure, other guests are supposed to be arriving soon for some big party, but Eve obviously does not accept what Peter says as the absolute truth. What is most intriguing is that Lessner sets up Automatic at Sea to be some sort of romantic thriller (beautiful Swedish traveler meets an eligible American heir and they head off to a deserted island to live happily ever after), but immediately tosses that premise out with the dirty laundry. That isn’t to say that Lessner’s film isn’t creepy, stalky, sexual thriller (although asexual thriller might be a bit more appropriate).
Regardless of Peter’s intentions, the focus falls upon Eve’s feelings. Eve is the narrator of this tale, explaining her daily experiences (plus dreams and visions) as if reciting from a diary (more on that later). From her arrival on the island, she feels as if she has been here before. However, the feeling is more like nostalgia than tangible memories. However, as time passes, each day becomes increasingly obscured, something that is accentuated by the intertitles which go from specificity (“the following morning”) to complete ambiguity (“another day”). Eve’s conceptualization of time rapidly erodes. Days bleed into each other. Eve begins to notice that even her reflexes are slowing down. It is not long before Eve questions her own existence (“maybe I’m a hologram?”). She even suspects that Peter might be controlling her future by rewriting her past (by presumably altering the entries her aforementioned diary).
A transcendentally, hallucinogenic thriller, Automatic at Sea distorts and manipulates reality to the point that it becomes a total mind-fuck. While the slow zooms, color palate, lighting and overall mise-en-scène are visually luscious and transfixing, there is no question that Lessner is lulling us into the same hypnotic coma as Eve. It is the gosh-darn natural beauty of the island that distracts us, isn’t it? Yes, it is.
Sure, Eve’s name seems as equally Christian as Peter – but after multiple viewings I have yet to pick up on an overtly Christian subtext. If there is a hidden Christian message, then what on earth is the tree full of naked women? Is there some obscure scripture that spoke of a tree full of naked women? Alright, cool. But, how many Bible verses speak of men having sexual relations with a bicycle? Yeah, okay, I thought not.
What I enjoy the most about Automatic at Sea is that it is the quintessential existential horror film, questioning: “Am I really me?” “Do I actually exist?” “Do I really have free will?” Jean-Paul Sartre would be so damn proud.
– Don Simpson (@thatdonsimpson)