A closer look at mind-bending thriller Remainder

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 17 Jun 2016

Acclaimed video artist Omer Fast discusses his intriguing and puzzling adaptation of Tom McCarthy's cult novel Remainder

Pity the video artist who tries to make the sidestep from the gallery space to the art house. Drift too far towards the mainstream and you’re branded a sellout (see Sam Taylor-Johnson’s bumpy start to movie-making); stick too close to your art practice and you might struggle to find an audience (see Ben Rivers’ brilliant but formerly intimidating feature films). Omer Fast, the Israeli-born, US-raised, Berlin-based artist seems to have made the jump seamlessly with his debut feature, Remainder. On one hand it’s the kind of refined puzzle movie that cults form around (Memento, Last Year at Marienbad, Mulholland DriveLa Jetée, Upstream Colour and Synecdoche, New York are just a handful of the films it calls to mind). On the other, it’s a natural extension of the themes Fast has been exploring exquisitely as a video artist.

The source material for Remainder is Tom McCarthy’s pleasantly off-kilter novel of the same name, from 2005, considered by many a modern masterpiece. Its story follows a disturbed young man who’s trying to recover from an incident involving debris falling from the sky ('technology; parts, bits'), which cracked his skull, puts him in a coma for months and leaves him with dysfunctional motor skills and a nasty case of amnesia. It’s a novel all about repetition, memory and an obsessive search for authenticity. Fast read it back in 2009 on the insistence of American writer Gideon Lewis-Kraus and it chimed with him immediately.

“The book and the work that I make, they share quite a few interests,” says Fast over the phone from his studio in Berlin. “One of them is of course the notion of trauma or injury, and its aftermath where the person, in a sense, is damaged and trying to recover, trying to find a place again in society.” Take, for example, Fast’s 2009 installation Nostalgia – that three-part film imagines a man’s account of his struggle for asylum in Britain as a 1970s science fiction movie. Or Fast’s most recent gallery piece, Continuity, in which a middle-class German couple hire a succession of male escorts to play their son, a soldier who died in combat in Afghanistan.

Remainder’s amnesic hero Tom (Tom Sturridge) is similarly trying to remake/remodel his shattered life. He’s doing so by obsessing over the few shards of memory he’s retained since the accident. Fast sees Tom’s strange, obsessive behaviour as a kind of do-it-yourself therapy: “He has to develop his own kind of vocabulary in order to deal with the major blank spots in his memory, carve out a natural space for himself in the world using very contrived or unnatural means.”

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Tom’s 'therapy' involves using an £8.5 million compensation settlement he receives following the accident to stage elaborate reconstructions of these half-remember vignettes from his childhood. He finds a Brixton apartment block resembling the one in his dreams, buys it, kicks out the current residents and moves in a troupe of actors to recreate his hazy memories. An old lady is put on liver-cooking duty in a ground floor flat so that the nostalgic smell wafts up the stairwell to Tom’s flat at the top. A stressed out cat wrangler has the job of keeping a trio of kittens on the roof at all times; they keep fighting and falling off ('We’ve went through five this week'). He also hires a pianist to tinkle the ivories two floors down. 'What shall I compose?' asks the pianist. 'Chopin,' says Tom. 'Chopin’s already composed.' 'Then compose him again.'

It dawns on you quite quickly that the exacting demands Tom puts on his team of players and technicians to reenact his obsessively detailed tableaux isn’t too dissimilar to what Fast, or any director for that matter, does as a filmmaker. “Oh, of course, in a sense [Tom] is a foil for the character of the artist or the movie director or the theatre director,” he says. For Fast, Tom’s theatrical shenanigans, and the consequences they have, are the crux of the story, which also involves a bank robbery, a missing suitcase filled with something valuable, and a girl who may or may not be Tom’s ex-wife. “In a sense the film tries to look at the point when an art practice begins to collide with life,” says Fast. “Eventually, of course, Tom transgresses and gets increasingly carried away by his visions, but more so by this obsession to complete those pictures in his head.” He adds: “This may me be making it sound too pretentious.”

That’s certainly not the vibe one gets while watching Remainder. Yes it’s a meditation on identity and trauma, but it also has shades of a sexy thriller cut and shut with a heist movie. Moreover, the film is rich with mordant humour, with most of the sly gags aimed at Fast’s own profession.

As Tom’s rehabilitation-cum-art project progresses it becomes more elaborate in an effort to be more 'real', but of course, the more he manipulates the situation the phonier it becomes. 'The cracks on the wall look contrived,' Tom complains to the workman kitting out the Brixton apartment block to his exact specification. 'How can they not look contrived, for fuck sake?' he replies. 'We made them.' The same goes for filmmaking, says Fast: “If you’re making movies it’s all an illusion. The sets that they build look perfect from where the camera sees them, but from any other angle they look all shoddy and shitty.”

Fast’s film isn’t just taking pot shots at the art and film world – it also acts as a sly critique on very current tensions within certain neighbourhoods of the city of London. The idea of a millionaire buying up property, tossing out its residents, and redeveloping for purely solipsistic ends should be a familiar narrative for anyone living in our capital’s “up-and-coming” boroughs. “I didn’t want [Tom] to work in a vacuum,” says Fast. “I wanted there to be at least some concrete consequences to what he’s doing. The figure of the artist that we have isn’t just someone who’s a dreamer, or someone who’s possibly a transgressor, but it’s also very much the artist as gentrifier, at least in the space of capital. His artistic vision ends up moving people out, bringing people in, changing space, changing the neighbourhood in a sense, and it was not incidental.” Fast camera doesn’t harp on this point, but we see exactly the type of people who need to move out (working class people and ethnic minorities) in order to make space for Tom’s vision.

These points are just scratching the surface of the ideas bursting from Remainder. It’s the most innovative British film this year, and the most thrillingly confounding since Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. Refreshingly, Fast simply sees it as an extension of his day job. “The actual storytelling that’s done is not necessarily inherently different from my gallery work,” he says. “I’m not really interested in what is a movie and what is an art movie, or whatever the fuck it is that we show in galleries as opposed to cinemas.” There is a difference, though, which becomes much more tangible when we talk economics. “I always have to ask people to help me [fund projects], whether it’s this feature or a gallery piece,” says Fast, “it’s just that the institutions that help me make it in the art world are, in a sense, if I can call them this, because I love them, highly irresponsible when it comes to financing, while people in cinema are overly responsible for their money, so that breeds different mentalities.” In other words: as an artist he has full control of his vision; as a filmmaker, he has to make compromises. “What’s seductive about cinema, or what was for me in making Remainder, is that you literally create a little world, step into it and disappear for several weeks. But that seduction comes with a certain price and a certain negotiation.”

We can understand why he was seduced. We only stepped into the world of Remainder for 100 minutes and we’re desperate to revisit.

Remainder is release 24 Jul by Soda Pictures