Written by Jeppe Rønde, Torben Bech, and Peter Asmussen
Directed by Jeppe Rønde
A feeling of gloom pervades every frame of Bridgend, the Danish teen drama which makes its Canadian premiere at Fantasia. Even as the kids drink and dance in ecstasy (in a scene which wouldn’t be out of place in Skins, the British soap where star Hannah Murray got her break) or skinny dip in large groups, there’s an undeniable sense of melancholy in their maniacal celebrations. Given the sadness evident in otherwise ebullient scenes, the ominous shots of the countryside shrouded in darkness or mournful messages on a computer screen make life in the film’s titular Welsh town seem unbearably grim.
You can understand the despondency. Bridgend provides a fictional look at a real-life incident in which there were 79 recorded suicides in the town between 2007 and 2012, none of which had an easy explanation. One of these deaths provides the film’s opening shot, as we see a boy lying in the woods with a noose around his neck. The suicides and Bridgend’s economic depression make for an unanswerable “chicken-or-the egg” scenario as to the original source of the despair, but the answer doesn’t matter for the film: life is rough in Bridgend, and that is all ye need to know.
The middle-class Sara (Murray) moves to the town from Bristol with her police officer father, Dave (Steven Waddington), and they have no idea what they’re getting themselves into. When she abandons her horse to hang out at “the lake” with a girl named Laurel (Elinor Crawley), she doesn’t realize she’s joining a skinny dipping party which doubles as a way of mourning the victim from the first frame. Even without the haunting imagery which begins the film, the morbid implications of the kids lying listless in the lake are clear: they don’t shy away from death.
As miserable their existence is, though, Sara can’t resist the allure of her new friends, and soon enough she’s joining them in their dodging of train cars and raiding supermarkets. The film doesn’t tell us whether her urge to spend time with them comes merely from an adolescent desire for inclusion or the allure of the alpha-male Thomas (Scott Arthur) and the sweet Jamie (Josh O’Connor) (or both), but either way she finds herself aligning more with them than her outsider father. Unsurprisingly, he’s not happy about this development, and she soon becomes more of a stranger in her own home than she is amongst the kids who continue to refer to her as “the new girl.”
Outside of Murray’s mesmerizing performance though, the focus of the film lies more on the cumulative effect of the suicides and their mysterious instigation (back to the “chicken-or-the-egg” question) than any of the people themselves. The gorgeous (if purposefully repetitive) cinematography from Magnus Nordenhof Jonck and the overwhelming electronic score from Mondkopf do a remarkable job of placing the viewer in the town. As a result, the film becomes more of a character study of the town than of anyone who inhabits it.
And this feels like an appropriate approach given how little is known about the suicides. No notes were left in the incidents, and rumors of cult activity have remained unproven. Rather than try to come up with an explanation for why the epidemic occurs, director Jeppe Rønde chooses to focus on the experience of what it’s like to live in a place like Bridgend. Like Sara, the viewer approaches the town unsure of what to expect, and leaves the film with an understanding of how life in Bridgend feels thanks to the cinematic simulation of the experience provided by Rønde.
The result is uncomfortable movie-going, and it’s certainly not for everyone. Like HBO’s post-apocalyptic series The Leftovers, the film takes a relentlessly bleak approach to telling a story which is, well, relentlessly bleak. But it’s this equivalence which makes Rønde’s technique feel appropriate: one can only imagine life in Bridgend during the suicide epidemic as unbearably depressing, and the viewer’s experience while watching Bridgend doesn’t feel too hopeful, either. For those who are willing to put themselves through that sort of ordeal, the film makes for absorbing viewing.