An eerie, engrossing tale of romantic longing, duplicity, and fractured realities, this debut by Giuseppe Capotondi has taken some time to funnel down the alleys of international distribution only to gain some belated admiration. The Double Hour can be loosely termed a thriller, although it’s really more an attempt to capture in cinematic textures a visually fragmented, hazily physical, atmosphere of psychological anxiety and desire. The occasional jolts of real-world action are reminiscent of Olivier Assayas in the way they add external threat to what is really a tale of dire but intensely private, moral straits, blended with elements of inner-space paranoia with debts to later Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch. Leading lady Kseniya Rappoport won the Best Actress award at
Venice for playing Sonia, a Latvian immigrant labouring in a ritzy hotel: in the opening scene, Sonia, cleaning the bathroom of a mysterious female guest (Chiara Nicola), who pays her a physical compliment seconds before hurling herself to her death from an open window. This grim, disorientating moment sets a tone of disquiet that permeates even the most placid and romantic subsequent scenes of Capotondi’s film. Turin
Sonia encounters, at a bizarre speed-dating event, where the rapidly shifting couples resemble a Wellesian hall of mirrors, each person offering potential bliss and terror, with a promised randomness that proves to finally be illusory. A former police surveillance wiz named Guido (Filippo Timi), stranded in emotional alienation since the death of his wife, is a regular at these events. He has sex with a woman he picks up from the speed dating, but, after going cold and ejecting the woman, angrily hurls a bottle at the door she’s banging on the other side of, trying to get his phone number. With his evident dissatisfaction with the single life, he is nonetheless swiftly taken with Sonia, whose mix of charm and toey vulnerability seems perfectly pitched to entice him, and after a time he takes her for a romantic getaway at the mansion he now works at as a security guard. When he first kisses Sonia in the woods near the house, they are assaulted by a balaclava-clad man, taken into the house, and tied up whilst thieves systematically pillage the mansion. One of the men returns and starts pawing Sonia, causing Guido to tackle him. They struggle for the thief’s gun, which goes of: the shot rings out through the house and without, as screen fades out.
Seemingly weeks later, Sonia is back on her job in the hotel, beset by traumatised dissociations, and slowly it becomes apparent that the gunshot killed Guido and the bullet finished up in her head. Soon enough she begins catching sight of Guido, in the hotel’s security camera system, even apparently within her apartment, appearing ghost-like in the shadows when the lights go out, and she hears a song he played her vibrating through the walls, audible when she’s under the water of her bath. Her otherworldly awareness is punctuated by violently loud gunshots, and everyone around her, especially a slightly too attentive hotel guest, seems charged with strangeness, even her chirpy friend and fellow maid Margherita (Antonia Truppo); eventually, after giving Sonia the same compliment as the suicide woman, she seems to suffer the same fate. Is Sonia being haunted? Is she entrapped in some kind of metaphysical loop? Are all these manifestations of some more substantial plot she does not yet understand? Or is she herself the engineer of plots, now being dogged by her own malfeasance?
Capotondi sets all this up with such inexorably careful filmmaking that the first two thirds of The Double Hour are engaging and gripping on a high level indeed. Without too-showy camerawork or ostentatious editing, Capotondi’s sinuous style offers in the robbery scene, with the arrival of the thieves’ van explicated not through visuals but through registering on Guido’s surveillance microphones, hints of dread that are not literalised until the firm smack of a gun handle against Guido’s brow. The ever so slightly abstracted, eliding visual quality suggests without exactly describing the corners of the private hells he’s conjured. Other touches throughout suggest the alien paranoia of Michael Haneke, but Capotondi steers clear of his dictatorial misanthropy for a romanticism that suggests forlorn and frustrated hearts operating under facades of determinist rhetoric and urban estrangement. The supple shifts and suggestions as Guido reacts with unexpected courtly rage to one of the thieves feeling Sonia up, and the eventual revelation of the thief to be Sonia’s criminal lover who of course considers her his sexual property, and that fact that Guido’s rash action inspires the only real moment of violence in the film, undercuts this with dark humour. Later Capotondi sets up disquiet expertly as Sonia submerges in a bathtub and hears ghostly strains of Guido’s song, and then the loud jolt-provoking thud of that calamitous gunshot that echoes on and on. The first third of the film contains hints of Claire Denis as Sonia’s thorough entrenchment in an establishment that offers a façade of glamour and comfort, the up-scale hotel, which for a worker for her offers mostly depersonalisation and demeaning effacement.
Both Sonia and Guido are dogged by tragedies in their past that can’t entirely be repaired, with only the promise of romantic coupling offering a salve, but that’s what proves precisely impossible for reasons that slowly resolve from out of the murk of Capotondi’s manipulated perspectives. The middle third of the film is revealed to be a lengthy coma fantasy, and even in these haunted and paranoid deliriums, shards of reality intrude and warn both Sonia and viewer of coming traps that will snap shut certainly. Friends and strangers morph into one another, threat lurks in the most helpful and bland of guises, and Sonia sees loss, degradation, and grim fate at every alternative. Guido’s police detective friend Dante (Michele Di Mauro) dogs Sonia like Dostoyevskian fate; Bruno (Fausto Russo Alesi) is the suspiciously unctuous hotel regular whom Sonia’s paranoia transforms into a psycho killer about to give her a shallow grave in punishment for her sins, but she wakes up into the arms of the barely wounded Guido, in her hospital bed. Capotondi tries to do something original with this now-familiar variety of narrative switchback, in not ending his film with his “it was all a dream” twist, but leaving an entire act still to explore its ramifications.
The layered script, by Alessandro Fabbri, Ludovica Rampoldi, and Stefano Sardo, offers some original tweaks on common film noir themes, like the depressed man engaged in a romance that may be deadly, and the delinquent runaway lovers, in envisioning what might happen to those oft-invoked figures after they flee for a new life. The successful crime resolving with a vision of life in paradise, also often an end point for crime films where one is asked to empathise with the criminals, is also intriguingly warped here, as if to ask if that’s not just another form of prison. Sonia’s shady past and equally shady present see her playing games that she might rather not be playing, but with a distinct minatory charge in undermining the other forms of determinism that would enfold her as just another ordinary worker. Guido, as a former cop and surveillance expert, is supposed to be a man who can sniff out bullshit at a fifty metre distance, and yet he’s become near-fatally distracted by his search for companionship. But Guido is conflated with Sonia’s father, a distant voice of aggrieved authority on the telephone, and a home never to be returned to.
It’s right at the point when The Double Hour might spiral into a truly memorable narrative auto-de-fe that Capotondi’s inspiration and courage abandon him, and he lets it slip away in exchange for an ending that’s dissatisfying precisely in being so modest in its ramifications, which can be grasped without being deeply shaken by them or even disturbed. Capotondi can’t justify his narrative gymnastics, or, from another perspective, those gymnastics betray the essentially gossamer texture of the real point, that sometimes people write themselves into scenarios they can’t escape from even in the very act of escape. Nor does he quite resolve the schism of perspectives between Sonia, who seems to own the film considering that so much of it is not just told through her eyes but through her deepest mental processes, and yet who still remains a slightly opaque character, and that of Guido, who is tantalised and finally forgiving of the peculiar wild animal who stumbles into his metaphorical headlines and out again. Still, the result is a film that captures and describes an intangible atmosphere, and Capotondi will hopefully sort of his priorities to explore more clearly with his excellent filmmaking in his next work.