Sweden. Directed by Filip Tegstedt, 2011. Starring Thomas Hedengran, Tintin Anderzon, Peter Stormare. 104 minutes.
Let me tell you about something that has happened to me about a dozen and a half times over my life. I was laying down, sleeping. Suddenly, I woke up, eyes wide open and staring at the ceiling, but entirely unable to move or speak. My body simply refused to obey the commands my brain sent it. Eventually, after some unclear amount of time, I would be able to force my will into my limbs or to my mouth and break the paralysis. It is very difficult for me to express exactly how terrifying these experiences are. The first time it happened is probably the single scariest moment of my entire life.
Eventually I discovered that the phenomenon was technically known as recurrent isolated sleep paralysis, usually just shortened to “sleep paralysis,” and my episodes were pretty mild. I’ve never hallucinated during an episode, or at least I don’t think I did. Hallucination is widely associated with sleep paralysis: the sensation of pressure on the chest, the feel of claws or talons on (or under) the skin, the unshakable feeling that an evil presence shares the room. Folklore often attributes such experiences to visitations from demons or evil spirits, such as the German/Scandinavian mare. A mare is a cursed or damned female spirit that sits on your chest while you sleep, causing you to dream of scary things: this is where the English word “nightmare” comes from.
The mare legend is at the center of the low-key Swedish horror film Marianne. Its protagonist, a recently widowed math teacher named Krister, suffers from incidences of sleep paralysis–or maybe he’s attracted the attention of a mare. As the film goes on, we learn more about Krister and his complicated relationships…his late wife Eva…his teenage daughter Sandra and infant daughter Linnéa…his mistress Marianne. It seems that something wishes to do Krister and his family harm, and he needs to find out what…and why…before it’s too late.
The dominant aspect of Marianne, in terms of the story, is the family drama. Writer/director Filip Tegstedt thoroughly explores the complexities and ambiguities that come with modern dysfunctional family life. Krister’s not entirely sympathetic as a character: while he owns up to his failures as a husband and a father, he doesn’t seem to be particularly repentant of his choices until comparatively late in the story. These scenes will be very familiar to anyone who’s witnessed the effects of infidelity on a relationship or experienced them firsthand. Tegstedt admirably refuses to pull any punches and it’s what largely gives the film its power.
On the other hand, this means that a lot of the story is told in flashback and I wasn’t entirely sure whether a couple of events were meant to take place in the present or recent past. I’m also not entirely sure how I feel about the action Krister takes that ultimately attracts the mare to him–it’s a third-act twist (actually revealed at what is almost the end of the movie) that doesn’t feel entirely in character with his personality.
I felt the supernatural-horror aspect of the story to be significantly weaker. I don’t know exactly why, but I simply didn’t find myself particularly interested in it. It moved a bit too slow and I didn’t really engage much with it. I did find it interesting that, if you pay close attention, you’ll find that everything that happens to Krister has a rational explanation and that the mare might be the psychological examination of his own guilt instead of a supernatural monster.
The characterization is excellent but it’s the sort of project that requires a great cast to make it work, and Marianne features many fine performances. Thomas Hedengran gives Krister just the right amount of distance and detachment to make the character work. He’s a guy with a traditionalist view of the parent-child dynamic, and he’s clearly uncomfortable with displays of emotion, but he’s hardly an unfeeling robot. Sandra Larsson imbues her namesake character with a fierceness that undercuts some of the “rebellious daughter” tropes (and the scene where she hides Krister’s coffee is priceless).
Dylan Johansson and Peter Stormare shine as two very different supporting characters: the former as Stiff, Sandra’s man-child boyfriend whose knowledge of Swedish folklore makes him Krister’s unlikely and uneasy ally; the latter as Sven, Krister’s thoroughly rational therapist. (Viewers from English-speaking countries, who only know Stormare for his over-the-top psychos and whack-jobs, may be pleasantly surprised at the subdued performance he gives here.)
Marianne does an excellent job of portraying the emotional wreckage of family turmoil, by way of Scandinavian folklore. Unfortunately I don’t feel the horror aspect of the story holds up quite as well, but the strong plotting and characterization and terrific performances make up for that.