Code Blue

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Code Blue is the second of six (as of June 2023) features by Poland-born, Netherlands-based film-maker Urszula Antoniak, and the second one I’ve seen. The first one I saw, Magic Mountains, was made in 2020, nine years after Code Blue but both feature single women locked in near-mortal struggles, with intimacy an issue. Does that make this a feature of her work or a coincidence? Three’s a trend, as they say, so I don’t know. Either way, Antoniak is someone to watch. She has a way with space and sound, and on the evidence of the work I’ve seen, makes stylish films bristling with menacing moods and atmospheres of psychological imperilment.

There is a lot of sinister stuff in Code Blue, a humming, clicking tale that might not be quite what it at first appears. Lean, almost ascetic Bien de Moor plays Marian, a nurse on an end-of-life ward who calmly goes about her job looking after people who have scant moments left in this world. She holds their hand as they die, then washes and lays out their corpses after having unhooked the vacated bodies from all the clinical paraphernalia. She watches silently as relatives of the mortally ill visit, and looks on dispassionately as one visitor whispers urgently into a loved-one’s ear: “Just die! Just die!” Marian also, occasionally, administers a life-ending injection to hasten one of her oldsters out of this world. Because they asked her to? We don’t know. Bad guy or good guy? Angel of mercy or angel of death? The question hovers.

Marian’s apartment is like a hospital ward, sparse, with a bed with hospital corners, in which Marian lies at night with her hands folded across her chest like one of the dead bodies she attends to at work. She has little keepsakes from some of her dead patients – a comb with a few stray hairs in it, a pencil, a plastic toy. Hers is a solitary life, though she seems to have a little unrequited passion for a fellow dweller in her apartment block, a man played by Lars Eidinger, something of a dab hand at weirdos.

Marian is more than a bit of a weirdo herself, of course. At one point she watches from her apartment as two men outside drag a young woman off into the sand dunes and rape her. How she reacts only reinforces the sense that Marian is locked in a struggle with herself over expressions of intimacy. I’ll say no more, but it’s unsettling.

Lars Eidinger as Konrad
Lars Eidinger as Konrad

We sense, because Antoniak shows us Marian vaguely stalking Konrad (Eidinger), that she’d like a relationship with him. As she comes home from the hospital seated on the bus, is that him we can see standing next to her, the guy whose groin she inclines her head towards as if to sniff it? It’s definitely him in the video shop where she buys a violent film to watch later at home, while painting a wall red. And it’s also definitely him she is watching through the tiny hole she has made in her curtains, so she can see him in his apartment over the way and one floor down.

Later, she’ll be formally introduced to Konrad at a party she has forced herself to go to, after which all the quasi-relationships and the fleeting intimacies of her life, the yearning and silent contemplation, will come to a sudden head in a mood-change so abrupt it’s shocking, and which casts a different light on what we’ve seen up till now. It’s sexually graphic too, if this sort of thing isn’t your bag.

The entire film tacks towards the silent, until it suddenly doesn’t, with Bien de Moor’s performance at the necessarily withdrawn end of the spectrum, until it shockingly isn’t (and what a face de Moor has for tragedy). The sense of pent-up emotion being suddenly released is epic, awful, monstrous, but there’s also a question suddenly forming about the film’s central relationship, which might not be at all what it appears.

As a psychological study it veers towards the melodramatic and there’s a touch of Dario Argento in Antoniak’s stygian scene-setting. But exactly as in Magic Mountains, there’s an amphetamine rush when Antoniak suddenly flicks all the switches to maximum, and everything suddenly goes from barely a simmer to rolling boil.

Does she do this in all her films? Better watch another one and find out. Nothing Personal, I think, her debut feature, from 2009. Can’t wait.

Code Blue – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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