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Sundance 2024: Presence, A Real Pain

Callina Lianag as Chloe in Presence (Photo: Peter Andrews)

An experiment in shooting a movie entirely from a first-person POV, Steven Soderbergh’s Presence has conceptual precedents but no meaningful ones in terms of the camera’s weight and the operator’s resulting physical relationship to it. 1947’s Lady in the Lake tried nonstop subjectivity with a bulky 35mm camera; 2009’s Enter the Void eliminated the embodied camera in its second half of weightless drifting. More recently there’s Hardcore Henry, which strapped GoPros to its protagonist’s head for a bouncy embodiment of a stuntman’s hardest workday. In Presence, Soderbergh’s longtime practice of acting as his own cinematographer and operator takes on an almost bragging quality. From the opening shot, a rapid pullback from a window that then has him turning around and racing down the stairs at breakneck pace, the 60-year-old (at time of shooting) runs speed trials like a champ without letting a single bump intrude.

The narrative quickly establishes that we aren’t witnessing a merely antic approach to coverage but the POV of an invisible something haunting the house which frugally constitutes the film’s sole locale. Obvious questions arise about what, if any, is the pre-existing relationship between the presence and the family that’s just moved into its domicile. The foursome’s fractured into two factions: on one side there’s wearily patient and loving father Chris (Chris Sullivan) and teen daughter Chloe (Calliana Liana), who’s been traumatized by the recent OD of her friend. Opposite them are the notably repellant duo of mother Rebekah (Lucy Liu), who alternates type-A workaholic selfishness with heavy home drinking sessions, and horrific son Tyler (Eddy Maday), a walking study in teen male pathology. The two sides are always fighting each other but the presence seems to align itself with Chloe, the only family member who senses it. 

As a drama, Presence doesn’t entirely fire, building to an extended, unpleasant scene unveiling the fairly nonsensical grand villain (this is definitely a movie for the fentanyl moment), but that doesn’t make its formal questions any less interesting to think about. Near-constant motion as the phantom keeps tabs on individual family members is counter-intuitive relative to Soderbergh’s default preference since Bubble for sustained master shots. While there have been exceptions (e.g. the wheelchair dolly kinetics of Unsane, some of the surprisingly rough handheld coverage in last year’s limited series Full Circle), his general latter-day range of motion is slow and spare, and often those static shots rest at near-baroque canted angles, sometimes compelling attention through sheer oddity. That’s an ideal approach for horror, since the genre depends so much on threats either lurking in darkness within the frame or just outside of it; constant motion which constantly shows what’s happening all around eliminates both possibilities. But this isn’t really a horror movie (more like a nasty family melodrama with a supernatural gloss), so what’s the camera doing? 

Talking to Amy Taubin, Soderbergh offers a narrative for the motion: “As the film goes on […] it knows more about where it should be if it’s trying to pick up information. And that was a really fun thing. […] it starts to learn, it can anticipate, and it’s not lagging as much as it does at the beginning.” Obviously I believe him, but that didn’t necessarily come across to me. For the first third, I was repeatedly discombobulated by moments when the camera stops to rest (i.e., observe a dramatic scene unfold) at an angle that might be Soderbergh’s preferred vantage in another film; at these moments, you forget that the perspective is entirely subjective, so it’s disorienting when it starts roaming again. But at other times, where the camera chooses to stop raises questions about why that location and if there’s an inadvertent gap between the character’s motivations and the operator’s needs. I found it odd that a floating presence capable of moving quickly would settle into observing a conversation between two people from a visually inelegant spot on a couch between them, awkwardly not quite looking at either. Maybe that was the easiest resting point for the operator? More mysteriously, sometimes the camera will simply hide in Chloe’s bedroom closet and peer out through the slats. Per Koepp in the press kit, “Steven had intimated that the character for the POV could be skittish. It’s a little fearful — hides in the closet a lot. Using those cues, I viewed it as a child. I tried to write it the way a small child is a little fearful, and also curious.” I, though, couldn’t help but feel like the only real reason to do this was for the camera to embody voyeurism in the most obvious meta-cinematic way possible. The noble experiment, if anything, should’ve been even more literal-minded.

Per his usual superhuman speed, Soderbergh shot Presence in three weeks last year and, according to his annual viewing log, had a viewable cut ready a month after starting production. Introducing A Real Pain, his sophomore effort as a writer-director, Jesse Eisenberg described a more typical production duration; from the moment the film started getting set up a year and a half ago, with the goal of having it ready for Sundance should it be accepted. That the film was done and now being shown was, he said, in a part “a relief for logistical reasons”—one of those jokes that’s not really a joke. 

Dialing down on the misanthropic characterizations of his first feature, When You Finish Saving the World, this is primarily a showcase for post-Succession Kieran Culkin to show previously undisplayed emotional range. I have enjoyed Culkin’s spiky smartass schtick ever since I saw Igby Goes Down as an abrasive high schooler but totally understand if, over 20 years later, with his stock higher than ever, he wants to do something different. (I do too!) The plot arc is schematically familiar: odd couple cousins Benji (Culkin) and David (Eisenberg) go on a guided tour in Poland of Holocaust-related sites, bond, fight, reconcile, etc. David is uptight, rigid about his schedule and can’t wait to get back to this family, which is pretty much Eisenberg’s entire arc, the better to direct attention back to Culkin. Benji begins the film as a jovial life-of-the-party type, winning the tour group over before erratic sadness and anger leak out. Either way, there’s no reflexive hostility save when his character keeps complaining about how terrible and boring wealthy people are (“Money is like heroin for boring people”), which I assume has to be a conscious meta-joke. I don’t know if Culkin’s going to regularly be cast as Mr. Warmth going forward, but his performance is charismatic nonetheless and his impulse to stretch surely laudable. 

Eisenberg and Culkin’s twitchinesses are completely compatible; in truth, I would have been happy with a movie in which they just travel and shoot the shit, but given the historical throughline I suppose having them stand in for Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip to Holocaust Remembrance would be considered inappropriate. If the setting provides a pleasant excuse for a soundtrack of wall-to-wall Chopin, the landscapes’ historical dimensions feel like a roundabout way to get co-financing from the Polish Film Institute rather than an integral part of the plot. There’s an unpleasantly mechanical feeling when, after the cousins have one of their blowouts, they are reconciled by visiting a concentration camp whose quiet horrors put everything into perspective, as trivializing a use for the Holocaust as any. In a commercial sense, I’m wrong about the film’s merits—it’s the first big acquisition of this year’s Sundance, a $10 million purchase by Searchlight. 

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