Life is one hallucinatory experience after another for psychotherapist and avant-garde artist Albert (David Sillars). Creating dubious art pieces by day and sporadically working as a psychotherapist to help a friend in need, the man forms an odd, but intriguing relationship with his newest patient. Dealing with themes like communication, mental health, anarchy and sexuality, Henry Coombes’ Seat In Shadow explores the dark, unsettling aspects of the human psyche and is in itself a fairly memorable psychedelic experience.
Spending his senior years as a proud gay free spirit, Albert seems as lost as he is eccentric – looking up Youtube tutorials from questionable health gurus on how to make charcoal toothpaste as his past time, the man has an unyielding interest for everything natural and spiritual. His preoccupation with “organic” products, which is comically brought out throughout the movie, seems to be poking fun at our obsession with pseudo-spirituality as a western culture, as well as our orthorexic mania for everything healthy. Sillars does a terrific job portraying the devilish bohemian without giving too much away of his character prematurely. Despite the script’s intermittent artificiality, Sillars manages to keep on top of the dialogue and naturally steals the spotlight in every scene.
Albert’s daily routine becomes a little less dull and sidelined when a close friend (Marcella McIntosh) asks him for a favor – to counsel her depressed and confused gay grandson, Ben (Jonathan Leslie). Reluctant at first, the psychotherapist is soon delighted to have accepted his friend’s request, as his new patient turns out to be a much needed learning experience on the old man’s road to self-discovery. Albert is entirely absorbed by Ben’s dejection and hopelessness after wilfully engrossing himself in his patient’s mental world. In a sea of quiet desperation and apathy, Ben has a final straw to grasp at in order to bring himself back to happiness – his burning desire to travel to Australia. Despite brashly mocking his yearning at first, Albert is determined to make the boy’s wish come true – one way or another.
The script’s histrionic and dreamlike dialogue is hard to act out naturally, but Sillars and Leslie accompany each other tactfully and the chemistry between them is what makes the movie work and flow effortlessly. Unlike an ordinary shrink, the psychoanalyst urges his patient to confront his pain instead of attempting to escape it and offers him a front-row “seat” to his mind’s chimerical fears and, ultimately, to an obscure trip inside a psychedelic Australia.
Coombes’ shots are sublime and the Scottish filmmaker assuredly knows how to tastefully make use of the set’s surroundings and weave them into a mind-blowing network of dream sequences and emotions. Given that gay psychodrama is a passably tough genre to break through, especially for a debut, this feature film certainly exceeds its limitations. Bottom line, you’ll either love or hate it. But if you keep an open mind you might be pleasantly surprised by the director’s style and kaleidoscopic approach, even if this genre isn’t really your cup of tea. Through his attention to detail, striking imagery and emotionally-charged scenes, Coombes distances himself from other directors and allows his film the flexibility required to evade from its niche confines.
Altogether, Seat In Shadow is a gripping feature film immersed in Freudian symbolism, absurd imagery and just the right amount of dark humor. Although not your typical mind-bending movie, Henry Coombes’ debut delves into surrealist cinema and psychoanalysis, while still subtly taunting religious syncretism, as well as the suspicious process of Jungian psychotherapy – and in doing so it makes for an exquisite guilty pleasure in this year’s BFI Flare Festival.