Berlin 2023

Inside review – Willem Dafoe gives an artful performance in isolated thriller

The actor plays both protagonist and antagonist in Vasilis Katsoupis's existential mystery about a thief trapped in a penthouse

If you’ve been lucky enough to see Greek director Vasilis Katsoupis’s debut film, the adventurous music documentary My Friend Larry Gus, you’d likely expect the follow-up to be similarly good, lo-fi fun. But this second feature is anything but subtle. Conceived years ago while Katsoupis was shooting Larry Gus and crashing at a friend’s luxurious New York apartment, the appeal of Inside comes in admiring the acting brilliance of Willem Dafoe under extreme lockdown conditions. The films begins as professional art thief Nemo (Dafoe), on the hunt for three works by Viennese artist Egon Schiele, gets trapped in a snazzy penthouse, its elaborate security system broken down.

Dafoe’s character reminds one of Ferrara’s Pasolini, and more prominently, of his role in his 2011 apocalyptic drama 4.44 Last Day on Earth, which first saw the actor working with his body as a tool in a confined space at what seemed like the end of times. With little to no lines – except the ones he invents to fight the unbearable silence – Nemo is really nobody, as his name suggests: we know nothing but his illegal occupation. Yet, during the film, we get to know him deeply: his resourcefulness, his inability to introspect, his denial and stubbornness. Because of the extreme conditions he’s put through in this penthouse-panopticon, self-regulation is no longer an option and it’s only natural to rely on an actor who’s willing to bare all and reinvent himself repeatedly with every new attempt to escape.

But what does that even mean, escape? In a world that is so meticulously built to keep the outside out and the inside in, a simple act of leaving would have constituted the greatest sin. In a way, Inside makes a point out of today’s obsession with security and voluntary isolation, on our own terms. This criticism is especially aimed at the ultra rich and entails a peculiar conclusion about the figure of the collector. Just as museums can be thought of as both prisons and stages, the collector’s vault (or home) protects and arrests time. A process of “taxidermasing” time is also present in the film, as the only thing that can still count time is Nemo’s body: his hunger, his bowel movements, his sleep, and his thirst. Inside is a psychological thriller mainly because of how physiological it feels in the absence of time.

The film works remarkably well as an extended, excessive, and even exhaustive metaphor for the golden cage, except when it’s explicitly spelled out. Humour and satire are equally important here, in capturing the stench of despair: from the creative access to water supplies to the use of “Macarena” as a warning when the smart fridge has been left open for too long. But the most captivating parts of the film remain what’s credited as “The Inside Collection,” or an actual confluence of artworks loaned by private collectors (purposefully), including the penthouse’s own video installation room with works by artist Breda Beban, who actually taught Katsoupis at university. The collection also features paintings, sculptures, photography, and drawings – a feast for the eyes and a delight to see destroyed and misused.

Together with screenwriter Ben Hopkins, Katsoupis conjures a terrifying world of isolation where the true horrors are to be found inside. Their film riffs on thriller, mystery, existential horror, and drama, but ultimately remains a distinctive creature that transforms and endures. Maybe there is a way out? But what if that’s not what we need in the first place?

Inside was screened as part of the Berlin Film Festival 2023. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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