Watercooler Wednesdays: Post Mortem: No One Dies in Skarnes & Nine Perfect Strangers
Watercooler Shows, the trending series that everyone talks about the next day at the office, around the water cooler… today there are no longer offices to go to, the movie theaters are functioning at limited capacity, and the content on the streaming platforms is increasing exponentially. Watercooler Wednesdays seeks to be a (critical) guide through the VoD maze: from masterpiece series to guilty pleasures, and from blockbusters that keep you on the edge of your couch to hidden gems; if it leads to binging, then it’s exactly what we’re looking for.
Post Mortem: No One Dies in Skarnes (Harald Zwart, 2021)
Released at the end of the summer – between pandemic waves, when everyone was trying to avenge last year’s lost holidays – Post Mortem: No One Dies in Skarnes would have been buried anyway under the multitude of titles released by Netflix just for the sake of decorating its digital library which only pushes a handful of flagship titles in the audience’s face anyway. A Norwegian production, the film was well-received, insofar as it was seen, occasion on which I also learned about an odd method used by Norwegian film criticism (and by reviews of any kind, in fact): films are rated graphically and in value with throws of the dice, from 1 to 6.
Twisting the rule of the game a bit, I’d say Post Mortem… it’s worth a double six. That doesn’t mean that it’s a masterpiece, just a series with a strange/lucky share of clever details; and with such a fine dosage that it’s easy to imagine that a little more or less of any of the main ingredients (black humor, drama, thriller, horror) would have turned the dice to a disappointing result.
Post Mortem kicks off exactly as the title suggests, with the sound of flies buzzing and a livid corpse shown in close-up: Live lies lifeless on a field on the outskirts of the small town, while the local police (ie 2 people, one of which is in love with the deceased) debates whether it is worth blowing the budget for an autopsy. Taking a moment for a bit of comic deconstruction of the genre: “What do you think the ambulance will do? You watch too many movies. In films, the ambulance comes to pick up the bodies. They even use blue lights, as if it’s a matter of life and death. It’s too late. They’re dead.”
No one dies in Skarnes, says the son with bitterness on the other side of town – a verbal ritual that follows the daily existence of the Hallangen family, 5-generation undertakers – before the father shows him his ringing cell phone screen: “It’s the police”. They’re both taken by a childlike sense of delight (endearing and creepy alike), maybe they’ll finally get the chance to sell the best product in their selection: the shiny mahogany casket. Instead of scoring big, they receive a huge blow: they must prepare a funeral, which they also have to pay for themselves, for Live Hallangen, sister and daughter.
It is probably the most significant and surprising attribute of the series – proven in these first 3 minutes – that it doesn’t hit the breaks at any moment, it doesn’t give you any warning that it’s about to change gears: from (black) comedy to family drama, without ever leaving the nordic sphere. This effect is all the more on point as the series won’t even allow itself to bask too long in its finest moments (of laughter or sorrow) and to drag out the narrative (which, let’s face it, is the cornerstone of the very concept of the series). All the more commendable, as this style seems to fit the Scandinavian “landscape”: “Even though it’s your sister we’re picking up, a funeral agent navigates life like a swan: controlled and elegant on the surface, while at the same time legs are working fast as hell.” Austerity, dignity, work ethic, repressed feelings and… vampires.
Lying naked on the autopsy table – in this exact manner (without any safety net), the scene is played/directed/illuminated as authentic as if we’ve just landed in an examination room (all topped by the doctors’ cynical comments) – Live comes back to life after the coroner sticks a scalpel into her chest. Medical oddity, miracle? In any case, Live returns from the dead with a lust for blood. There is no spoiler here, we are only at minute 6, but the dice have been rolled: Kathrine Thorborg Johansen – exceptional in the lead role – is the one who keeps rolling them.
Post Mortem adapts the vampire mythology to the everyday human condition and avoids the already beaten paths: amorality, the good vampire, the evil vampire, the romantic vampire (with its wide palette, from Twilight to Only Lovers Left Alive). Furthermore, it doesn’t shy away from meta tinkering with the all-too-known aesthetic of Nordic cinema: wilderness and cool/desaturate colors. When the bloodlust hits, the screen fills with color and gets crowded with non-Scandinavian props.
The new Live is practically the same woman, only now she makes protein shakes from red fruits and blood, and from time to time, she uses the resources from her job for personal purposes (she collects blood from an old woman from the asylum where she works). Between the drops, she tries to help her brother keep the mortuary business alive, to find out who left her for dead in the field, and to avoid the insistence of the two police officers (one wants to put her in jail, the other is in love with her since high school).
Of course, from all these colliding plots, humor is a given, but Post Mortem is by no means a dramedy. Drama is drama, horror is horror, and humor is sometimes dark, sometimes warm, but never parody. Post Mortem takes its protagonists seriously, with all their vulnerabilities, selfish impulses, cynical reasoning, and reprehensible actions – all thrown in the arms of the viewer, to whom not even humor can offer a comfortable grid to relate to what they witness.
The series is available on Netflix.
Nine Perfect Strangers (David E. Kelley, 2021)
Nine Americans with issues of all kinds are lured into a 10-day retreat at a California wellness center as luxurious as it is questionable in methods. Hope dies last. Like the patients who come to treat their various depressions and choose to continue with the treatment despite all the negative signs – so I chose to watch the latest Hulu hit to its very end (it seems to be their most-watched original production so far).
Nine Perfect Strangers is eye-catching through many things – from cast, cinematography, soundtrack (which ultimately turns into an annoying buzzing) – but the promise is not honored to the end (actually, that’s clear long before). What saves it somewhat is that this promise was probably never clear to its creators either: is it a satire or is it legit? That explains how Nine Perfect Strangers can allure you in parts (sometimes drama, sometimes comedy, sometimes simply smoothie food porn in slow motion), but it fails as a whole.
The parts that seem to work are rather the actors (one big name after another) and less the characters. The characters are actually sketches, although some have a bit more color in them, they manage to go beyond the pencil sketch stage depending on the needs of the script. Similar to the subversive therapy that is practiced at the Tranquillum center – for which you gave your approval believing it to be something else –, the film shoves a false premise in your face, that all narratives are equally important when in fact some are just space-fillers. There is even a scene in which six of the patients are confined in a room under some dramaturgical pretext, to allow the narrative to unfold its climax which only involves the other three.
The beginning of the series is quite decent, focusing on introducing these nine strangers – the way they speak, the way they dress, and more interestingly, the cars they drive. We have the young couple in a yellow, convertible Lamborghini; he is a rich boy (we find out later that he won the lottery), she is an influencer and model with fake nails. He is bored with life, she has low self-esteem and is addicted to validation (receiving likes and hearts). They are the most marginal characters and the first ones cast aside as Nine Perfect Strangers follows its course to the great revelations that include far fewer characters. A revelation is also Samara Weaving, who plays her social media-obsessed character as if someone clicks the refresh button on her every few seconds: the need for validation and constant self-doubt are distilled into a permanent and abrupt physical and verbal hesitance.
Then we have the misanthropic and narcissistic gay journalist (Luke Evans), who drives a massive SUV – a place where he can isolate himself from others and maybe an attempt to show off his masculinity and self-sufficiency (he is the most skeptical of the whole group). And, of course, we have two perfect strangers who dislike each other from day one, but it’s obvious in which direction things are headed. She is a romance novelist with too many love wounds (a fancy sedan with tinted windows, so that no one can see you when you cry your eyes out); he is a former pro athlete with a failed career (old-school convertible, a once-fashionable wreck, just like him). Melissa McCarthy and Bobby Cannavale play two rom-com characters lost in a series that rather comes across as drama/mystery film/thriller. On top of that, Nine Perfect Strangers is infused with a great deal of involuntary comedy that undermines its more serious intentions. In order to get to this point, we have to make a small detour through another exceptional performance.
Three of the nine participants are no strangers at all, they have known each other since forever. The Marconi clan shows up on a beat-up family break, three seats are taken – father, mother, daughter – and between them a huge abyss, an absent son/brother. Unlike the other characters – whose dramas don’t get to you because they are simply memories told in group therapy (with some supporting flashbacks or hallucinations here and there) – this family’s tragedy really works on the screen, for that it can be played in the present tense, with hard feelings and self-blame on all sides. Even if I was to read the reviews before getting a start on the series, I would still have watched it for Michael Shannon alone and I wouldn’t have regretted it. As the grieving father, Shannon is the show’s center of emotional gravity… but not its main character/star.
The Marconi family would never have afforded to come to Tranquillum, but they received a discount because their story is important to the founder of the center herself, a mysterious Russian woman now settled in California. In the words of one of the characters, Masha is a “magic unicorn from the Eastern Bloc”… and that’s exactly what we see. Nicole Kidman enters the scene, white dress, hair up to the waist, illuminated as an aura, like an elf queen from Lord of The Rings, ready to take your pain away, look you in the eye and heal you with an incantation. It’s hard to say if the character had any chance at credibility/authenticity in the manner described above. The fact is that every time she opens her mouth – with the fakest Russian accent that even a B movie would be ashamed of, which she uses only part-time –, Nicole Kidman sabotages all the conventions established until then. The scenes she appears in seem rather like bloopers; at best, it’s an assumed camp (still, it’s Nicole Kidman), but the purpose behind this exaggeration is nowhere to be found (especially since her story is just as tragic).
Whether she is a real guru, a fraud, or a manipulative psychopath, Kidman’s character is simply from another movie, a bad one. The downside is that she’s not a marginal character, an eccentricity on the far side of the frame. The good part is that all the other characters mind their own business – guest appearances, unlikely rom-com heroes, or families in limbo after a major trauma – and build several micro-series that are as good as you’d expect… from a production with Nicole Kidman on the poster.
The series is available on Amazon Prime Video.