Sophie Cundale’s new film commission ‘The Near Room’ (2020) is an absurd psychological melodrama about loss and the aftermath. The film as a whole asks, but doesn’t answer the question of how we make sense of experiences in flux, like ecstasy or crisis. In unfathomable times, when death feels closer to life than ever, this film is an unsettling watch.
‘The Near Room’ is a tale of two individuals whose near-death experiences coincide. While a boxer anticipates a fight, we see strange visions through the prism of his mind. After a knockout in the ring, his concussed hallucination transports him to a shadowy, alternate reality. There, an ageing, deluded queen mourns her deceased prince. The queen suffers from a rare condition – she believes herself to be already dead – which her conspiring courtiers seek to exploit and, in doing so, challenge her reign. The film juxtaposes two references: boxing legend Muhammad Ali’s account of a visionary space he would enter in the depths of a fight and the tragic story of Queen Juana la Loca of medieval Castile. Though widely separated by time and space, the boxer and the queen share a similar plight: both are psychologically trapped, “quarantined in limbo, as if [their] grief can catch”. In the penultimate scene, the protagonists meet: the boxer releases the queen to her death, an act which returns him to the present.
In the small space of thirty minutes, Cundale enchants viewers with a sequence of unpredictable actions and irresistible visions. The narrative of the film shifts between real and imagined places, from a south London boxing gym to a 16th century royal court. Events in the parallel worlds are deliriously montaged, shot after shot, until each world is so shot through with the other that it is hard to know which is which and who is who. Indeed, the characters split and double, swapping roles or worlds (played variously by professional boxers, an artist and seasoned actors). Genres and themes collide, melding the supernatural, historical melodrama and black comedy. The visuals are mesmerising, painting the screen with blood reds and glassy blues, and the score is full of surprising elements, like a hurdy gurdy. Everything conspires to plunge the viewer into a state of disorientation.
‘The Near Room’ has the clarity of a waking dream. It is both too real and too fantastic to shrug off. Shots still linger in my mind’s eye. An aerial view of the boxing ring reveals a composition of crisp lines and contrasting, chromatic planes that resemble shards of broken glass. In the queen’s candlelit chamber, strange wall paintings depict amorphous forms that hover between bruises and mould. The film is a committed representation of interior states that are, by any means, irreproducible; but in the details, Cundale articulates the feeling of a life from the inside. For some, the film may seem too chaotic to engage emotionally, but I found it a profound reminder of the mysterious darkness of the mind.
‘The Near Room’ (2020) comes to Nottingham’s Bonington Gallery after a run at South London Gallery this summer.