RELIC ***** Australia / USA 2020 Dir: Natalie Erika James. 89 mins
The title immediately invokes images of a classic Hollywood monster movie – or, specifically, 90s creature feature THE RELIC – but this feature debut for director Natalie Erika James (co-written with Christian White) is a truly frightening, moving piece about the monster that finds us all in the end, one way or another.
It opens with the image of an over-flowing bath tub, familiar from past horror films as a signifier of a terrible drowning that will come to haunt the protagonists. Here, it’s followed by a shot of octogenarian Edna (Robyn Nevin) naked and disorientated, standing in front of a Christmas tree. Edna is experiencing some advance stage of dementia, her house decorated with post-it notes reminding herself to take her pills, turn off the taps, flush the toilet. As her workaholic daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) finds out in a phone call, she hasn’t been seen by her neighbours for a few days. Kay’s own, twentysomething daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) joins the search parties, only for Edna to reappear unexpectedly.
Through the prism of a terrifying haunted house movie, James unravels a harrowing study of a cruel illness and the toll it takes on so many. The thing that robs individuals of their independence and identity, and families of their loved ones, seems to manifest itself in RELIC as noises in the night, creaking doors, banging walls, skewed shots of empty corridors. There might be something Under the Bed. There are whispers of a malevolent presence that may have followed Kay’s grandfather decades earlier. When Edna returns, our view of the older woman is often obscured – sometimes obscured by mise en scene, sometimes literally cut off from the edge of the frame, just as Edna is increasingly cut off from reality.
Mortimer excels as a woman who finds it easier to lose herself in work than deal with the practicalities of housing a mother who is now a danger to herself and others. Heathcote’s sympathetic Sam has to remind her of some of the stark realities about life we’d rather not face : “Isn’t that how it works? Your mum changes your nappies and then you change hers?” A visit to a retirement home offers no comfort, just hollow promises of independent living for the dignity-drained shell that was once your mother.
Burying photo albums while wishing aloud she can bury herself (“So it can’t get me”), Nevin is remarkable as the once proud matriarch for whom the walls are literally and figuratively closing in, her house physically decaying and contracting in tandem with her mind. The post-its gradually revealed as the camera explores different corners of Edna’s home offer the most heartbreaking reminders of a life now lost, of vanishing memories. One reads, simply, “I am loved”.
The plight of a loved one imprisoned by irreversible illness has seldom been so powerfully conveyed as here. The same applies to the portrait of the next of kin facing up to the fact that, in Kay’s words, “It’s not her anymore”. The denouement is bold and devastating, combining physical horror and tenderness with the intelligence of Cronenberg’s THE FLY, which was also repellent and heartfelt in its visualisation of terminal illness. RELIC’s coda echoes another Cronenberg film, his brilliant divorce parable THE BROOD, as it confirms an unending cycle of the horrors none of us can escape.
Review by Steven West