The first movie of the coronaviral era is already here. Domains, from Japanese film-maker Natsuka Kusano, premiered last year at the Rotterdam film festival, so it was conceived and made well before the outbreak. But with eerie relevance, it speaks to the spirit of our times, featuring sparsely populated or empty streets, characters who always stay a few feet apart, who don’t touch and rarely speak face-to-face, and in any case only with a weird dislocation and alienation. There’s a character who objects to the isolation in which another character appears to be locking down his family and demands to know if this man considers her a “virus” who has to be kept well away. In her own domain, in fact.
Along with many others recently, I’ve been curating lists of feelgood movies to keep everyone cheerful – and we’re all tweeting merrily about how odd it is to see people in films recklessly hugging and wantonly touching each other. Feelgood anthologising is an entirely valid cinephile activity. Who knows how vital a global resource it may yet turn out to be as the months stretch ahead? Yet, however intensely non-fun this particular movie is, it’s a relief to engage with a type of cinema that presents itself as something other than a comfort blanket.
Domains is a stark, experimental chamber piece, directed by Kusano and written by Tomoyuki Takahashi (who worked on Ry?suke Hamaguchi’s film Happy Hour) with a self-deconstructing self-awareness that feels like something from the French New Wave. The title evidently echoes the 1956 exhibition of the same name from Japanese photographer Ikko Narahara.
We start in a police station where one character is confessing to a murder, and doing so with deliberative calmness, making it clear that this was no accident. From there we flash back to scenes involving three people affected by the crime. Aki (Asami Shibuya) is a single woman taking a break from her job in publishing due a breakdown that is never entirely specified. She has recently reconnected with her old schoolfriend, Nodoka (Tomo Kasajima), who is now married to a cold, controlling and abusive man called Naoto (Tomomitsu Adachi); they have a small daughter, Honoka. The two women are galvanised by the revival of shared girlhood memories, but their intimacy deeply irritates the charmless Naoto, and he is infuriated when his wife lets Aki buy presents for Honoka; he blames this interloper for getting Honoka feverishly overexcited and ill. Soon he demands that his wife shuns her.
But this is not shown straight: we simply see the actors rehearsing the scenes, mostly with the script in front of them. The same scenes are played over and over again, with changes in emphasis and intonation and camera placement, and very occasionally new lines are included, with the director occasionally heard, off-camera, though never seen.
The effect is unexpected. The endless Groundhog Day repetition of these moments – key “prologue” scenes to the crime – has the effect of magnifying the scenes and rendering them more amenable to scrutiny. It allows us, the audience, to examine them, to pick them apart. But to what end? Again and again, the question of motive will come up in our minds, just as it does in the characters’. Yet motive always remains opaque.
And what is happening in these enigmatic “rehearsal” scenes anyway? Are we seeing the characters themselves, trying to engage with their own past, like Pirandellian figures adrift in a play whose meaning they can’t work out? Do they go through these scenes repeatedly, the way all of us can listlessly go over painful memories, trying to make sense of them, get to the truth of them like a cop or a judge, actually trying to knead them into blankness so they are bearable?
At the beginning, we will see the police officer (in that initial “real” scene) reading back the confession statement in precisely the same unengaged tone that everyone else is to use. This police transcript appears to have the same status as the film script. It is the official document, which appears to give a black-and-white fixity and meaning to inchoate events. But this meaning is elusive.
Domains speaks of unease, emotional containment, the societal need to carry on and the fear of something growing out of control. “Be careful,” says Naoto to his cowed wife about Aki, “or her influence is going to spread.” Troubling though it is to say right now, this film is about a suppressed dread of something fatal just around the corner.