Inspired by the cult obsessions around icons like Lou Reed and Klaus Kinski, the sort that points to an artist’s work as forgiveness for ugly behavior, “The Arbalest” similarly presents a prickly personality while displaying some unique merits. A period film at first look, director Adam Pinney frames this folk tale of obsession in a parallel reality, with history getting a revisionist tweak, jumping back and forth over a decade in the mind of Foster Kalt (Mike Brune), an enigmatic toymaker during the ‘60s and ‘70s. A definite vision sells the world that Pinney aims to create, but the flat characters that populate the film prove it as little more than an ambitious curio piece.
Emotionally, “The Arbalest” explores the dangerous lengths of nagging regret. It opens in 1968, within a hotel room during a toy convention, as Foster Kalt meets the woman that will haunt him — or he will haunt — for the next decade. The bright, whip-smart Sylvia (Tallie Medel) is at the convention with her business partner (John Briddell), as the pair endure each other’s company in order to present their latest invention. Foster is in the room too, seemingly uninvited, but he entertains the duo anyway with his new “toy” – a functional tool that converts air into helium for inflating balloons.
From the confines of this garish hotel room, with zebra print floors and jigsaw wallpaper straight out of the “The Shining”, Pinney declares his bold stylistic approach for the film. Sylvia and her associate state their feelings in deadpan soundbites, the tenor of each performance sits five notches above normal, and Pinney isn’t above suddenly cutting to a garage rock dance-off, the camera zooming around the room as the night rattles on. However, somewhere in the chaos of whiskey and crushed up pills that the trio imbibe, Sylvia says she loves Foster, and also gives him her idea for an invention. Never mind that she’s high while saying it and she disappears the morning after — Foster takes that sentiment to heart and never lets go.
Sylvia’s invention, a Rubix Cube-esque puzzle soon named The Kalt Cube, earns permanent worldwide popularity in Foster’s hands, and Kalt soon lives the cycle of celebrity without having done the work. Over the next few years he shaves his head and dyes his hair blonde, takes to wearing aviator sunglasses while delivering cryptic interviews, and then announces a vow of silence. As he later explains in 1978 to a documentary crew (Felice Monteith, Marc Farley, Matt Stanton) though, that announcement was just to distract the media. He was actually busy locating Sylvia, who shunned the spotlight for a quiet life in the woods.
Brune embodies the shape-shifting Foster with sly confidence, throwing himself wholly into each new look – clean-cut businessman, blonde-haired punk, or shaggy, bearded shut-in later on. Due to the character as written, though, his range doesn’t have much room to stray from “aloof,” “jealous,” or “vengeful.” There is also never much intent on Pinney’s part to make Foster look younger or older during the decade-long gap, and similarly so with Medel, who plays Sylvia with an amusing, resigned air of defeat watching Foster’s actions. Pinney chooses just one sustained tone, one emotion for his characters and settings, which lends to the unending feeling of Foster’s fixation on Sylvia, but speaks to the gradually emerging feeling that there’s not much going on under the narrative hood of Pinney’s making.
To compensate, Pinney throws a barrage of visual hooks onto the screen, staging fake TV programs, timelapses, and camera techniques that mimic the various periods. Together with the folksy soundtrack by Thomas Barnwell and Ian Deaton (who even contribute a theme tune of sorts), it calls to mind the humorous vintage tone of British comedian Matt Berry’s work (“Toast of London,” “Snuff Box”), or the faux-educational TV series “Look Around You”. However, it doesn’t pull off the laughs it wants nearly as well: a gag about a documentary soundman constantly monitoring Kalt becomes tedious, while Kalt’s transformation into a full-on asshole feels unwarranted and predictable.
The bitter pessimism that washes over the film culminates in a last-ditch attempt by Foster to win over Sylvia, but by then it is too late, for both him and the film. In its strict formalism and jarring absurdist choices, “The Arbalest” never quite convinces that it owns a world outside the frame, losing steam quickly after an initial sprint of evocative ideas, game performances, and vibrant visuals. [C-]