The horror of mental health has long been a muse for filmmakers when it comes to evoking dread in the audience. From classics such as Psycho up to modern day masterpieces such as They Look Like People and The Babadook, the concept of not trusting your own perception of the world has often been used as a source of horror. Even in films that aren’t directly about mental illness such as Rosemary’s Baby rely in part on the fear that maybe what we’re seeing/hearing isn’t what is actually going on. Onur Karaman’s Emptiness is a film that casts a deep and unflinching gaze upon the concept and in turn gives us a profoundly bleak statement on it.
Emptiness is the story of Suzanne, a woman living in an isolated farmhouse who is apparently suffering from the emotional distress of her husband Normand leaving. Living with her are two apparent caretakers who throughout the film do a sort of “good cop bad cop” routine; sometimes coming off as compassionate and nurturing, other times doing nothing to veil their clear contempt for Suzanne. As the film progresses, Suzanne begins to doubt her grip on reality more and more, and the film spirals into a strange and washed depiction of despair and depression.
This is a deeply, deeply melancholy film, and the visuals of it are key to that aspect. Karaman deftly uses light and shadow to turn the farmhouse into a labyrinthian mess, a mundane but threatening funhouse where something just off enough to be unsettling is always right around the corner. Similarly, the technique of casting certain scenes in deep red hues makes the visuals of this film even more startling. Flashback scenes of Normand keep the characters face in shadow, giving these scenes an ominous feel that resemble a childhood bad dream.
Stephanie Breton’s performance as Suzanne is the focal point of the film, and ultimately it is her depiction of a woman in the grips of something unspeakable that push this it past the finish line. Breton brings to life a woman who is not quite successfully keeping up appearances of having her shit together, and as the film progresses becomes more and more panicked and unhinged. Breton, however, never lets Suzanne become a parody of a “mad woman”. There is no over the top behavior that turns the film into spectacle. Rather, Suzanne is always relatable. She never becomes pathetic, but she is always someone worthy of empathy. Her suffering is dignified and horrifying at the same time. It’s a tremendously satisfying and moving performance.
One of the more frightening elements of the film that is lying just beneath the central theme of mental illness is the concept of neglect by caretakers. Throughout the film, even though the viewer is questioning as to whether or not what we are seeing is real as opposed to Suzanne’s delirium, the way Linda and Nicole (the caretakers) treat her is benignly negligent and at worse purposefully cruel. Seeing this in film is bad enough, but realizing that abuse by caretakers for the elderly and mentally challenged is a very real and prevalent problem in society makes this aspect of the film chilling. The very last scene of the film is especially frightening when viewed through this lens.
Emptiness is a film with a simple but stark message: those suffering from mental illness are worth our empathy and they deserve dignity. It is a film that has a powerful message dressed up in efficiently terrifying imagery, a lean and effective work of art that wastes no time in getting under the viewer’s skin and then digging further into the meat and bone to drive that its message home.