LFF 2019: Rose Plays Julie
The Desperate Optimists (Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor) return with another stylish study of identity and trauma
The films of Irish directing duo Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor (who've dubbed their production company Desperate Optimists) are deliciously slippery. Shifting identities are their métier. In 2008's Helen, a young woman's sense of self goes into a tailspin after playing the role of a missing girl during a police reconstruction of the crime scene. And in Mister John, Aidan Gillen plays a man being coaxed into his dead brother's shoes while trying to arrange his funeral in Singapore. With their new psychological thriller, the roleplay is explicit in the title, although in this case, the identities being switched are one and the same.
Rose (Ann Skelly) is a veterinary student who wanders the modernist architecture corridors of her college and halls of residence with an inscrutable blankness that's a trademark of Molloy and Lawlor's characters. Julie is the name Rose was given by her birth mother, Ellen (Orla Brady), who put her up for adoption and is now a successful actor (more shifting identities) with an eclectic CV including roles as a WWII nurse and a vampire-slaying cop.
Rose begins dipping out of her animal euthanasia module to stalk the woman who gave her up, and their reconnection leads her to learn of her father Peter (regular Desperate Optimists collaborator Gillen), a famous archaeologist. Like her old man, Rose is interested in uncovering the past.
To say more would spoil some of Rose Plays Julie's creepy pleasures. What we can say is that Molloy and Lawlor approach the psychological thriller in a pleasingly unique and unsettling fashion. The genre's tropes are continually undermined or subverted. Sequences in slow-motion set to an operatic score, recalling the duo's virtuosic single-shot short Who Killed Brown Owl?, gives the film the quality of an unfurling dream, which forgives any lapses in real world logic.
The issues Molloy and Lawlor are playing with, though, are very much grounded in reality. The lasting scars of male violence, the need to face trauma head-on and the morality of revenge are all explored to haunting effect, with no easy answers to any of the murky questions raised. This is hypnotic, thrilling, deeply confident filmmaking.
Rose Plays Julie had its world premiere at BFI London Film Festival 2019