Improvisational fun, but the thriller-mystery never arrives

This rather strange super-micro-indie movie, quite ambitious despite its limited means, is cast as an artistic, inventive mystery-thriller full of vague menace. It primarily revolves around Stephanie (Stephanie Hayes), an actress, who apparently has two identities; or perhaps she is sometimes trying on other roles and accents. (When hiding out from trouble, she puts on a Texan drawl despite having audible Swedish/British roots.) Scenes range over several time periods, jumping back and forth.

Early on, Stephanie wakes up after a drunken night in the presence of a self-identified special New York police officer who calls himself Gerard (Scott Shepherd), who is interested in her - he remembers seeing her on stage, has rescued her, takes her to breakfast, and insists she ride in his car rather than take the subway, which he thinks dangerous now. He keeps saying he has a woman at home, Lizette, whom we do not meet, and may not exist. This odd, tenuous relationship between Stephanie and Gerard (the movie's greatest mystery) seems the defining one - until it is completely abandoned later for obvious reasons.

Despite Gerard's warning, the story has more menace from sexually predatory men than from subway bombs, pigs, crazy movie agents, maniacally laughing roommates, or other passing menaces or annoyances. But it is a series of separate vignettes, striking different moods. In her enthusiastic review for Reverse Shot Beatrice Loayza, for whom everything works in this movie, describes it as having an "undercurrent of inanity and black humor" that is "utterly Lynchian." She also finds its atmosphere "feels claustrophobic and empty all at once," which she identifies with the life of "hollow stasis" of Philip Larkin's 1974 poem that is the source of the title. (A phrase from Larkin overtly cited by Stephanie is "banal foreboding.")

There is meant to be an air of menace lingering throughout, but because of the abrupt shifts of the editing, this does not build so much. The film is trying to do other things, including make us laugh. Sometimes the 16mm camera work and editing are surreal or expressionistic; other times more conventional. The abrupt shifts of visual style can be disconcerting and seem clumsy. On the other hand a lot of the conversation is entertaining, juiced up by the palpable bravado of its improvisation.

After their awkward relationship has progressed a bit, there is a very dire incident that occurs between Stephanie and Gerard. It is this that leads her to retreat to Upstate New York, where we have seen her in the film's opening scene. If we think back to that scene - though then, we didn't know what we were watching - we may realize that the dialogue of the band working on a record also refers to the theme of performance and authenticity.

Despite the ambition of a complex structure, which also includes secret societies and illuminati of acting, the film works best on a simple level where performance rises to the occasion in improvisation, as in a jazz solo. Thus there are two moments of storytelling that stand out, straightforward arias during which for a while someone almost mesmerizes us. Stephanie is a friend of Chloe (Chloe Sevigny, more or less as herself): two attractive thespian ladies with long blonde hair. Chloe recounts a very strange audition for a role involving a mysterious few pages of unidentified, but magical, dialogue received by messenger, spoken by a character called "Caterina." Chloe's monologue fascinates, with an air of the magical and dangerous.

Similarly hypnotic is a tale told by Stephanie years later, making up a story about a boy and a pig named Gerard (that name again) on a bedtime session with her little girl and husband listening over Zoom. The husband and child have suddenly appeared with the passage of time in this new vignette. Stephanie is away for a role, perhaps in Hollywood. This time something ominous does seem coming - in the story - but the little girl just falls asleep and so the Zoom session ends, as does the story - and the picture.

In between we have seen Stephanie, hiding out after the disastrous incident with Gerard, upstate at a house where a group of musicians are rehearsing for a new record and she puts on the fake Texas accent. After a while, we may have come to feel that everyone is either playacting, practicing, or making up stories. Perhaps that is the only ultimate point. Chloe's audition story, though wonderful, is far-fetched. Another time Stephanie is at an AA meeting - the ultimate time for being oneself, coming clean - and gives a speech, when Gerard appears and calls its authenticity into question, saying she's only there for research.

What is going on here may be better understood by the fact that the filmmakers have said Jacques Rivette was the guiding spirit behind this movie, with his penchant for menace and conspiracy as well as his interest in secret societies, actors, rehearsing and dramatic stagings. The principals may be either acting or lying for the fun of it.

Beatrice Loayza describes Slow Machine as "a digressive, tantalizingly off-kilter mystery." She says it's "a fascinating work pitched at the intersection of American independent cinema and the avant-garde theater of Richard Foreman and the Wooster Group." It certainly is the latter, pitched at that intersection, and completed, as she points out, in only two or three weeks. The mystery may tantalize, and be off-kilter, but so much so it has trouble cohering as a mystery.

"Mystery" is a conservative genre. "Mysterious," on the other hand, can mean anything, and we can grant this is that.

Slow Machine, 72 mins., debuted at Rotterdam Jan. 23, 2020, showing Paris (Champs Élysées) Jun. 11, St. Petersburg Aug. 20, New York Oct. 8, Vienna Oct. 23, Kylv Oct. 25, 2020. Theatrical release in selected US cities by Grasshopper Jun. 11, 2021. Showing at Metrograph Jun. 4-10.