With her debut “Tore Dances” Katrin Gebbe has already strained a lot of nerves and stomachs. Your follow-up work PELICAN BLOOD is in no way inferior to the shock value of its predecessor, although it actually only tells about a self-sacrificing mother. We reveal more about this in our review.
OT: Pelican Blood (DE/BUL 2019)
Wiebke (Nina Hoss) lives with her adopted daughter Nikolina (Adelia-Constance Ocleppo) on an idyllic horse farm. After many years of waiting, she now gets the chance to adopt another girl, five-year-old Raya (Katerina Lipovska), from Bulgaria. Nikolina is very happy about the long-awaited sibling. The first few weeks together as a family are harmonious and the new siblings get along well. But Wiebke soon realizes that Raya, initially charming, is hiding something. She becomes more and more aggressive and poses an increasing danger to herself and others. Nikolina in particular suffers from her attacks, but Wiebke’s relationships and friendships are also put to the test. In order to save her family, Wiebke ultimately has to cross borders and make an extreme decision.
Katrin Gebbe’s “Pelikanblut” was originally supposed to be released in USA cinemas many months ago, but like so many other films it fell victim to the Corona crisis. But basically the “Tore Dances” director can count herself lucky, as her mother-daughter drama, which has elements of horror cinema, starts at an even greater distance from Nora Fingscheidt’s audience and critics’ favorite “System Sprenger”. Since both films are about difficult-to-educate girls in the broadest sense, the comparison between them is inevitably obvious, although “Pelican Blood” can actually be placed in a different place: in the same neighborhood as Lynne Ramsay’s scandalous work “We need to talk about Kevin”, namely, in which the question is not only raised as to whether children can be fundamentally evil or are only made so by their external environment. But it’s also about how far motherly love goes, can and may go. Anyone who has seen Gebbe’s debut film “Tore Dances” can imagine that the Ibbenbür native is once again resorting to radical means to express her motivation.
Raya (Katerina Lipovska), her adopted sister Nikolina (Adelia-Constance Ocleppo) and adoptive mother Wiebke (Nina Hoss).
The film title “Pelican Blood” is derived from the mythological symbolism of the mother pelican, who rips open her own chest in order to use her blood to bring her dead children back to life. So the mother sacrifices herself because her children’s lives are more important to her than her own. This motif of maternal self-sacrifice is both self-explanatory and extremely dark – and thus sets the tone with which Katrin Gebbe tries to push her audience to the limits of psychological resilience in the following 120 minutes. The auteur filmmaker takes a remarkably subtle approach to the matter. Even though Gebbe loses herself more and more in genre games over time and pushes further and further into psychological and horror cinema with every new crazy act of her meter-high devil Raya, she locates the plot of her film in pure idyll. Permanent sunshine, galloping horses, the amiable interaction between Wiebke and her stepdaughter Nikolina as well as colleagues and friends never announce the impending disaster. Anyone who thought that only Ari Aster could do “horror in the light,” as he showed so impressively in “Midsommar” last year, is wrong – “Pelikanblut” is at least as memorable on this level and perhaps even a bit more subversive. Because in “Midsommar” Aster almost exaggerated it a little with his glaring sky, in which the sun itself can never be seen despite constant sunlight. “Pelican Blood,” on the other hand, is staged with the stylistic means of a classic feel-good holiday film, which is why the sudden disruption of the summer idyll is much more brutal than in a setting in which nothing is as it should be from the start.
“Anyone who thought that only Ari Aster could do “horror in the light,” as he showed so impressively in “Midsommar” last year, is wrong – “Pelikanblut” is at least as memorable on this level and perhaps even more so more subversive.”
From the moment Raya moves in, you see the girl with the ice-cold look as a foreign body. The little one doesn’t behave antisocially towards her new family members from the start; on the contrary. At the beginning, Raya is so reserved and more afraid than shy that one of the “pelican bloods” inevitably gets to her side, perceives her as a victim of the situation and simply wishes for her and her adoptive mother that the child’s obviously battered soul can somehow recover over time . It’s not just Nina Hoss’ (“Return to Montauk”) It is thanks to the self-sacrificing performance that you look forward to a happy ending with both Raya and her (you realize quickly enough that this hope for a conventional ending is wrong!). Also in the eyes of newcomer Katerina Lipovska (“Absentia”) Uncertainty sparkles through in isolated, tiny moments, which raises the question between all the little girl’s shameful deeds as to whether there really is no empathy at all in her, or whether she at least temporarily realizes – for example through the behavior of those around her – that she is very evil says and does things. As a result, the sympathies in “Pelikanblut” are constantly shifting. As the film progresses, you increasingly oscillate between pity for Raya, pity for Wiebke, disgust for Raya (and at times also for Wiebke) and ultimately, representative of everyone involved, you are on the verge of capitulation. The adoptive mother-adoptive daughter structure presented here functions like a perpetual motion machine that keeps itself going through the vicious circle of aggression and confrontation. It’s painful to watch.
From one day to the next, Raya turns against those around her.
Despite its 16+ rating, “Pelikanblut” is never explicitly brutal. But you don’t have to see a close-up of a young girl biting off the nipple of her breastfeeding mother to get an idea of what Raya is capable of. A scene in which nothing is even hinted at is particularly haunting. It’s enough for Wiebke to find out from the mother of one of Raya’s classmates that she has apparently abused him in the most brutal way for the viewer to get a grip on everything. It’s not so much the severity of the violent acts that bothers you, but rather the great perceptual contrast between Raya’s exterior and the evil that slumbers within her. And then there is still the question of whether one can even speak of “evil” when Raya’s behavior ultimately has physical causes. In “Pelikanblut” Nina Hoss experiences this inner conflict of disgust and despair in a magnificent tour-de-force performance. Unlike the viewer, she not only goes through the emotional hell of constant setbacks and resorts to increasingly brutal methods to achieve a goal that is actually unattainable. She gives the accompanying desperation a face that you won’t quickly forget.
“It’s not so much the severity of the violent acts that bothers you, but rather the great contrast in perception between Raya’s exterior and the evil that slumbers within her.”
The fact that Wiebke, as a horse trainer, has also been found as a symbolic counterpart for her very existing empathy – she can deal with large four-legged friends, but not with a little girl – may seem a little clumsy. But “Pelikanblut” is always to some extent about power and who has it and what really defines it. And ultimately, the film needs this seemingly unbreakable pony farm idyll to illustrate the great influence of the five-year-old. At the end of the film, opinions will differ. Some will consider it consistent in terms of radicalism, others will criticize that Gebbe answers a bit too much in order to maintain the mystery surrounding Raya. Her decision to finally turn to genre cinema is definitely a courageous one.
Conclusion: With her second feature film “Pelikanblut”, “Tore Dances” director Katrin Gebbe has created a provocative mix of “System buster” and “We need to talk about Kevin”, which uses horror cinema style to raise the explosive question of how far motherly love goes and in general allowed to go.
“Pelikanblut” can be seen in USA cinemas from September 24th.