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Short Starts: “The Roommate” Director Christian E. Christiansen’s “At Night”

Short Starts: "The Roommate" Director Christian E. Christiansen's "At Night"

The general critical consensus on last week’s box office champ, “The Roommate”, is that there’s really no reason to go buy a ticket. In no way do I disagree with that judgment. The movie, while not horrible, is really nothing more than an uninteresting B picture. It’s not particularly scary, which is unfortunate for a horror film, and the story isn’t anything beyond an uninspired remix of the “Single White Female” motif. The performances aren’t particularly atrocious, but they certainly don’t redeem the movie either. Under no circumstances is it a reasonable idea to spend ten bucks on this entirely unnecessary failure at genre filmmaking.

Academy Award nominee Christian E. Christiansen, the man tasked to direct this unfortunate picture, comes from Denmark, and this is his first English-language feature. How exactly does he have an Oscar nomination? Well, Christiansen directed “At Night,” a short film from 2008 that was up for Best Live Action Short, and allows for some less snarky thinking about “The Roommate.” It’s also more than interesting enough to deserve some attention all its own.

Full disclosure: most of Christiansen’s films have not had US release at all, so I have only seen “At Night,” which is available on iTunes. However, that’s enough to bring up two noticeable connections between his Danish work and “The Roommate”, the most interesting of which is his pre-occupation with the intimacy between women. “At Night” is about three young women living in a hospital, all dealing with an advanced stage of cancer. The short is about their interactions, and the intensely close bonds that develop as they deal with their mortality at a very early age. They come from very different family dynamics; Sara’s father is often at the hospital, while Stephanie is completely cut off from her parents. But it is the connections that build between these young women that drive the power of Christiansen’s creation, and it is that same skill of showing intimacy that one can find in his American debut.

Mette, Stephanie and Sara of “At Night” even look alike, with only Stephanie’s dark hair bringing about difference. The same is true of “The Roommate,” and there are moments in which Rebecca and Sara (Leighton Meester and Minka Kelly’s characters) seem to be visually interchangeable, a pointed sign of the extraordinary connection that has been built between them. Of course, the bond between stalker and stalked is a little bit different from the relationships between young women dying together, but for Christiansen they have commonalities.

There’s also a palpable intimacy in the filming style of both these films. Christiansen’s camera is fascinated by the emotional potential of the face itself, and the conversations between his female characters are often incredibly close. Even Rebecca’s creepy artistic expressions of her stalker’s longing are all close-up renditions of a face, drawing even more attention to Christiansen’s fascination with the intimacy and communicative potential of face-to-face interaction. The two films are populated by these penetrating and essential visual conversations between young women, though while they supply the emotional impact of “At Night,” they can do nothing to save the abject failure of last week’s number one movie.

In a way, that is the downfall of “The Roommate,” and perhaps the director’s fascination with the psychological intimacy that grows between his protagonist and her stalker distracts him from the more basic goals of a B thriller, namely scaring his audience. Sadly, between the screenplay and the goals of the studio, there probably wasn’t much of a chance to save this failed thriller from its pointlessness. “At Night,” on the other hand, was successful enough that Christiansen turned it into a feature-length film the following year. That film, “Crying for Love” is not available in the US, but the short is on iTunes (where it’s been since its Oscar nomination), and can be purchased for $1.99. Clocking at 38 minutes, the short is more than worth your time.

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