Punches are packed in twenty minute Stephen Mangan film


L'assenza - Credit: Archant

We’re so accustomed to settling in for the 90-plus minutes of a movie that it can be a shock to see how short films pack their punches hard and fast.

A mere few minutes can see a life destroyed, rebuilt and destroyed again.

“Like a novella, the short film’s a limited space in which to tell a story,” says producer Carey Born, of First Born Films, based in Wood Lane, Highgate.

“Yet they can be so varied. They fulfil different functions. They take on a life of their own.”

The BFI Lighthouse scheme recently attracted great swathes of aspiring film-makers, funding 17 projects that communicated their stories effectively in the shorter format.

One was Born’s L’Assenza, written and directed by Tufnell Park-based film critic Jonathan Romney and shot at various locations across north London. It has already been selected to screen at three major international festivals and tells the story of Martin, played by Primrose Hill resident Stephen Mangan, who becomes obsessed with the sight of his double in a 60s Italian film called L’Assenza, or The Absence.


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Picture the scene. Martin’s settled down with his wife to a TV dinner: there’s not much on. She leaves a captioned black and white film running; he feigns interest. Suddenly – “there!” – one of the actors on screen looks exactly like Martin. He’s not speaking, looks sullen, is utterly incongruous to his surroundings. He is Martin, there’s no mistaking it: his wife gasps and laughs. Her husband is here but he is also there, in the TV, on their screen. They are one and the same person. How can this be?

Running to and from this image of himself, Martin becomes obsessed with his double, like a visceral recoiling where you flee from something horrifying before sneaking back for a second look.

L’Assenza is shot around Archway, Belsize Park and Crouch End. Mangan’s character drinks at The Queens in Crouch End, works at an office in Park Road, Crouch End, lives in a flat in Cromartie Road, N19, and tries to find an old copy of the Italian film at the sadly closed Archway Video in Archway Road.

His journey eventually takes him to Paris, desperately seeking one last look at his giant, inescapable cinematic double. Mangan effectively reveals an increasingly frenetic personality, twisting itself into knots of which only we, the audience, are aware.

Romney was keen to produce something that resisted categorisation, that “subtly disturbed” audiences. “I’ve always been fascinated with the literary Gothic, and doppelgänger stories from the literary tradition, like Edgar Allen Poe’s William Wilson,” he says. “This film’s an attempt to use some of those ideas in a modern story set in the world we know – the uncanny is always more effective against a mundane background.”

One of L’Assenza’s main challenges, says Born, was that it essentially comprised two films: the vignettes of Martin trying to solve the riddle of himself on screen and the Italian feature film with which he grows so hauntingly obsessed.

Modelled around the reflective, moody works of Antonioni, cinematographer Nic Knowland’s footage here was particularly impressive in creating intermittent splicings of black-and-white.

The modernist Isokon building in Lawn Road, Hampstead, offered a suitably continental setting for these truly gorgeous moments of cinematography: nostalgic as a faded photograph and disturbing in their comparative otherness – particularly so if you don’t speak Italian. The score also has a wonderful lulling effect which, repeated, grows ever more sinister.

The past treads heavily throughout L’Assenza: as Martin sits spellbound in Hampstead’s Everyman Cinema, we are constantly reminded of shifting environments and how quickly the ordinary becomes extraordinary. Suddenly the undefinable is under your skin and, as Romney says, “like a virus, it’s taken control of you”.

L’Assenza is a pacy, energetic and troublesome piece of cinema, partly about the fascination of cinema itself, that craftily reminds us how those things we cannot fathom are indeed the most unsettling.