By Eric Kohn | Indiewire April 15, 2011 at 5:02AM
Movies have always played with audience expectations. Louis Lumiére's 1895 short "Tables Turned on the Gardener" concludes its one-minute length with a timeless sight gag. A few decades later, "The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari" pioneered the movie twist by revealing that the majority of its narrative took place within one man's disturbed mind.
The twist eventually became commercialized as a sacred piece of information available only to those willing to pay for it. "Psycho" marquees demanded that audiences not reveal the ending, although its biggest twist arrived just 40 minutes in. Seventeen years later, Darth Vader announced he was Luke's dad at the climax of "The Empire Strikes Back," ensuring demand for "Return of the Jedi."
Today, twists seem readymade for 140-character digestion. (M. Night Shyamalan's career path tracks the twist's diminishing returns, from "Bruce is dead!" in "The Sixth Sense" to "The plants did it!" in "The Happening.") Most recently, media reports about "Scream 4" focused on the expectation of major twists, which director Wes Craven had to combat with an iron fist (and endless nondisclosure forms).
And then you have a deliciously atmospheric movie like "The Double Hour," the directorial debut of Italian filmmaker Giuseppe Capotondi. Borrowing a page from "Memento," it assumes the perspective of an unreliable narrator in ambiguous circumstances.
At its core, "The Double Hour" is a classic noir story of deception. Ksenia Rappoport plays Sonia, a Slovenian immigrant in Turin wasting her days as a hotel maid. Seeking company, she heads to a local speed dating event, where she meets retired cop Guido (Fillipo Timi). His dark, pensive expression quickly wins her over and the two lovebirds head to a fancy country home to spend the weekend away from their dreary urban existence.
Just when they start getting hot and heavy, something terrible happens. I won't reveal the details, but a criminal act occurs; the nature of the crime and identity of the criminals are unclear. Somebody dies (or do they?) and Sonia's world begins to fall apart. She can't tell if she's awake or asleep. Capotondi ably guides the drama into thriller territory, with flashes of jittery horror, as Sonia starts to jump at shadows in her apartment.
The first twist arrives 50 minutes into the action; several more follow. For long stretches, just as things start to make sense, the labyrinthian trajectory continues to confound.
Capatondi relentlessly explores Sonia's subjectivity, forcing viewers to keep up and then tricking them into reaching the wrong conclusion. With so many possibilities in play, Capotondi can't possibly reach a satisfying payoff. However, the majority of the experience is a remarkably fluid detective story.
By the time the credits roll, it's easy enough to map out the story on paper, which makes "The Double Hour" look a lot less accomplished. The logic of the ending, however, hardly conveys the beguiling process involved in getting there.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Aided by strong reviews and top awards from the Venice Film Festival, "The Double Hour" could do decent business in limited release and find a welcome home on VOD.
criticWIRE grade: B+
"The Double Hour" opens in New York on Friday at Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Sunshine Cinema.