Unsettling German psychological drama Agonie reviewed out of the Fantasia Film Festival.
David Clay Diaz’s debut feature Agonie (which had its North American premiere at the 2016 Fantasia Film Festival last week) is a quiet meditation on the transition into adulthood and the realization of one’s limits and mortality.
The film follows two young men, university law student Alex (Alexander Srtschin) and the transient Christian (Samuel Schneider) who has returned from a military academy and now spends his days training at the gym or drinking with friends. Both characters’ accounts run parallel, never crossing one another, the edits between them pulsating back and forth. Although on the surface they seemingly have superficial elements in common (an interest and frustration with the opposite sex, drinking, socializing) the point of interest between them, despite their different socio-economic backgrounds, is their discontent with defining their sense of self.
Some viewers may find Diaz’s style frustrating, so focused is he on the angst of his characters’ personal hells’ that the climax of the narrative is revealed by a title card at the opening of the film. Throughout the film’s 90 minute run we know that one of these young men will murder and dismember his girlfriend by the end. For those who prefer a classic approach to cinematic narrative, the plots excision from the script before the film begins may find the viewing experience a trying endeavor.
Nonetheless, for a first feature film Diaz is skillful in keeping us interested in his titular characters. He hints at various possible motives and an underlying theme of repression runs consistently between the young adult’s sexuality, their strained relationships with their parents, and rejected attempts to conform to social norms. However, he also subverts our expectations, never allowing the film to become a whodunit exercise. As the title card reminds us, the motive is a mystery, and not all frustration manifests itself into homicidal violence.
Diaz sometimes relies on didactic means to communicate this. Cheap exposition through a weak third parallel media story feels forced and distracts from the films undulating structure. Yet, the character narrative is supported by a brilliant cast; girlfriend Sandra (Alexandra Schmidt) especially is remarkable as a young salacious adult defining her identity in relation to her sexuality, while bringing an intense vulnerability to the role. Overall, the film’s strength lies in its brilliant young performers, struggling against an invisible antagonist of expectation and desire building a tension that becomes unbearable by the film’s conclusion. A brave breakout drama, Agonie will not be everyone’s cup of tea. Nevertheless, what makes us uncomfortable is often more telling than the satiated satisfaction a classic narrative structure leaves within us at the end credits.