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Tangled Webs: Minos Nikolakakis’s Entwined (Toronto International Film Festival)

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By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.

With its world premiere in the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival’s Discovery program, stalwart short film director Minos Nikolakakis turns to his feature debut with the extraordinary neo fairy tale Entwined, weaving the folkloric textures of the old into a contemporary scenario with profound results.

After the death of his father, despite the protestations of his half-brother a young doctor called Panos (Prometheus Aleiferopoulos) decides to move to the tiny Greek village of Aylti to look after the health of the largely older population. As the brothers say their farewells, Panos’s brother implores him to reconsider, issuing an explicit statement that becomes a core (and not particularly subtle) thematic drumbeat throughout the film: “science doesn’t have all the answers, as much as you might want it to.”

Built into the side of a steep hillside, Aylti is beautiful but largely untouched by modernity. This includes medicine itself, as Panos discovers he is the town’s first doctor. Yet even before his arrival in the village, things clearly function well beyond what he considers normal as his car hits a beautiful woman called Danae (Anastasia-Rafaela Konidi), sending her running into the woods before he has a chance to talk to her. His life in his new home is slow to the point of stultifying, cleverly reflected in the slow, almost glacial pacing with which the film begins; time here does not work like time elsewhere, as Panos will soon discover. Though he’s intrigued at first, his fascination with Danae evolves into a full-blown infatuation as he visits her ramshackle house outside of the village, where she reiterates this suspicion of progress, telling him she “longs for the old days,” where the world was full of horses instead of cars, rendering their first encounter an impossibility.

Discovering she has a serious, mysterious skin infection, Panos is struck by her fear when she chases him out of the house when her feral, white-haired father awakens with an ogre-like growl. She kisses Panos on the cheek while forcing him anxiously out the door, as the doctor’s desire is consolidated. Researching skin diseases, he soon makes enquiries in the village and is told in words that again echo his brother’s warnings. Regardless, he clings to the possible benefits of that very science when returning to Danae to treat her skin condition, in the hopes of being her saviour. Once her arrives, however, despite the blossoming romance a decidedly unexpected turn in their power relations makes it more than apparent that Danae needs anything but his science.

Driven by earnest performances by its central cast that grant the more fantastic elements of Entwined a sense of gravity it might otherwise lack, Nikolakakis’s feature debut shows confidence and authenticity that effectively grants his story (adapted in a screenplay written by John de Holland, who plays Panos’s brother George) a thematic relevance that in other hands could be easily lost. On the surface, Entwined could superficially be read as little more than that old chestnut the monstrous-feminine at work again, Mother Nature herself configured as the ultimate femme fatale as she traps well-meaning, romantically susceptible men in her web of branches, leaves and vintage crocheted shawls.

Such an interpretation, however, undermines the empathy we feel towards Danae as much as we do Panos. She’s mysterious, yes, and there’s even something ominous about her behaviour, but this stands in contrast to Panos’s arrogance, suggested as typical of all privileged men of status and authority. Although male viewers may read her very differently, for me there’s more desperation than villainy to Danae, and even though the truth of her circumstances are not revealed until later in the film, we too to some degree share her frustration at Panos’s blind faith in science and his refusal to open his mind to laws of nature beyond his understanding.

In a world where a courageous environmentalist teenager on the autism spectrum has struck fear and provoked anger in some of the most powerful men on the planet, Nikolakakis’s unrelenting thematic drumbeat underscores that there is a feminine connection to the natural world that the dominant patriarchy has little ability to grasp. Entwined speaks through old laws and old fears to profoundly contemporary anxieties about the environment and how it can be wilfully misunderstood by those in power, a fatal error at any moment in history.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic from Melbourne, Australia, who has written five books on cult, horror and exploitation film including Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011), Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2015), and the single-film focused monographs Suspiria (Auteur, 2016), Ms. 45 (Columbia University Press, 2017) and The Hitcher (Arrow Books, 2018). She is the co-editor, with Dean Brandum, of ReFocus: the Films of Elaine May (Edinburgh University Press, 2019).

Read also:

The Language of Lovecraft: Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space (Fantastic Fest)

Wild Women and the Great Karoo: Jenna Bass’s Flatland (Toronto International Film Festival)

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