Seeing someone’s gradual decline and their inevitable death is just very tricky and horrible and it’s as a culture something we don't deal with very well anymore.

An otherwise untroubled and bright Sundance Film Festival was eclipsed by sorrow, to say the least, on the morning of January 26th. Anthem was ensconced in a drop-a-needle-quiet hotel suite where we were preparing for our interview and photo shoot with Emily Mortimer and Bella Heathcote to promote their new genre film, Relic, which has so much to do with the idea of mourning the “deaths” of loved ones who are still very much alive. It was also, of course, when the world woke up to the news of Kobe Bryant’s fatal helicopter crash. A visibly upset publicist announced the breaking news while our photographer was mid-snap. It’s hard to shake the feeling that what happened to Bryant forever imbued the portraits with an underlying sadness. Maybe you can’t tell from these pictures—they’re great actors, after all. Maybe you just had to be there.

Relic is the first feature from Japanese-Australian filmmaker Natalie Erika James, about three generations of women thrown into punishing darkness. When Edna (Robyn Nevin), the matriarch of the family, mysteriously vanishes somewhere outside of Melbourne, her daughter Kay (Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Heathcote) are summoned back to their rural family home. They enlist the help of authorities and scour the house for clues to her whereabouts and discover evidence of Edna’s dementia everywhere, mainly Post-it note reminders to complete mundane tasks like flushing the toilet. Then as mysteriously as she disappeared, Edna simply shows up again. Sometimes she seems fine, her hair coiled up in a neat roll. At others, she seems to be worlds away, straggly and unraveled, and unsettling and angry as she fights with an invisible figure before having a short lapse back into lucidity. Understandably, this leaves Edna’s progeny with a lot of questions. Sam decides to move in with her grandmother. Kay, on the other hand, is disapproving of her daughter’s selfless act and travels to Melbourne to tour a retirement village for her mother. By the third act, it’s undeniable that an insidious presence has indeed taken a hold of Edna. The house becomes unpredictable with its endless halls and doors appearing where they shouldn’t, trapping them all in a hell full of twists and grotesque imagery that was once familiar. Through it all, the movie’s conceit is the most chilling. What is more horrifying than the gradual attrition of personality and memories of a loved one until all that remains is a stranger?

It feels important to acknowledge, too, where this story came from and what James writes in her director’s statement as a powerful reminder of how hard it can be to watch someone you love slip away from you. This is a personal story: “Several years ago I took a trip back to Japan to see my grandmother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. It was a trip I’d kept delaying for one reason or another, and when I finally got around to seeing her, it turned out I’d left it too late—she didn’t recognize who I was. The guilt was hard to swallow. At a certain level, it felt worse than death—to see your loved one progressively lose parts of themselves, and slowly become a stranger.”

Relic is art house horror at its best, armed with one of the most emotionally devastating endings we’ve experienced in the genre. It’s also decidedly conceptual, which is sure to divide audiences.

Relic world premiered as a midnight screening at the Sundance Film Festival on January 25th.

Natalie [Erika James] is very open to talking about the origins of this story. How connected did you feel to Alzheimer’s or dementia heading into this project?

Bella Heathcote: There are people in my life who have dementia and one person I know who’s really in the final stages of her Alzheimer’s, so it was pretty confronting going into the film with that. But also, it’s about growing up with an absent parent and knowing what that felt like, or any kind of grief that I think we all feel. It just basically tapped into all of my traumas in the film.

Emily Mortimer: My dad died about 10 years ago and he did have a kind of dementia in the final few months—the last 6 months maybe. He managed to disguise it quite well, but I now realize in retrospect it never got as bad as it could have because he was dying anyway, you know what I mean? But it was very weird. My dad and I were so close. He was the person in my life. He was the person I felt most adored by, ever. I remember one day going to visit him in the hospital. My sister and I had just come back from America and we had been away for a while. I went straight to London, straight to the hospital. My sister had been with him when I arrived and when she went to leave she said, “Okay, dad, I’m leaving you. But Em’s here. I’m going to the shops” or whatever, and he looked really worried. Then he looked at me and gave me this kind of fake smile.

Bella: Oh no…

Emily: As if to say, “I don’t know who you’re leaving me with!” It was just the weirdest thing to have someone—especially the main person who had never looked at you with anything but adoration and love—look at you like, “I don’t really know you.” And not only that, they’re quite suspicious of you and scared to be left alone with you. It’s like being in a horror film, it really is. The horror of real life. So I did relate to that feeling. It took my dad a long time to die. He was sort of ill for about 5 years, but the last 2 years were really bad. Seeing someone’s gradual decline and their inevitable death is just very tricky and horrible and it’s as a culture something we don’t deal with very well anymore. It used to be that, in the old days, you would know how to bury your dead. It has become something that’s removed from us. We have other people deal with it. More often they’re in hospitals. It used to be in the villages that you would be with the people that were dying and then you would bury them because it’s an inevitable part of everyday life. Now it feels so alien and scary and removed. The fact that this film looks at it straight in the face, in such an honoring way, is so beautiful and at times so horrifying. It’s just so cool the way Natalie deals with the death of a loved one.

The ending especially is so beautiful and profound, and it’s totally earned. It really hit me like a baseball bat because I wasn’t so sure the film had that in its chamber. Do you think most audiences will be able to go beyond the horror aspects and discover that emotional center for themselves? Can you imagine anything less in their takeaway?

Bella: I can’t imagine not going beyond the horror aspects of it. I can’t imagine anyone watching it any other way. If anyone’s had any experience with grief, I honestly can’t imagine how you can’t see yourself in the film or see your own experience in the film. The thing that I love about it is how the horror aspects sort of bizarrely, paradoxically lull you into this safe space to be able to look at grief in the face. I still feel strange talking about my mother’s death, but we talk about love and heartbreak and all these other things that happen to us in everyday life. But as soon as you talk about death, it’s almost—

Emily: Taboo.

Bella: Taboo, yeah! I feel like the horror allows you to go there without making you feel like, “Oh god, this is a film about grief and death.”

Emily: Yeah, yeah. Last night as I was watching it, I was laughing. I really couldn’t stop because I was finding it quite joyful how outrageous it was getting. And yet, it was still connected to the reality of the experience of seeing someone you love decay. The outrageous, amazing, fantastical ending is so earned because it felt embedded in a real feeling—a real visceral feeling of what it’s like to see somebody that you love die. It earned it because all the way leading up to it is very grounded and it’s not until the last third or the last 20 minutes of the movie that it goes there. I found it so entertaining. That’s why I was really kind of laughing. I couldn’t believe how audacious this is, you know? With Bella, she suddenly gets stuck in the corridors and the rooms and she’s punching the hole in the wall and coming out of another ceiling above her head. It’s the madness of it! Then Edna with her limbs cracking!

Bella: Oh god! [laughs]

Emily: I found it joyful because she was taking it into such a mad place, she really did. It felt like you could look death in the eye in a way that didn’t feel so heavy. And yet, it was so intense, so cool. I can’t stop thinking about it. I just can’t believe how cool Natalie is.

Bella: Same, same.

In my mind, the film doesn’t really work if taken so literally solely in a horror movie context. Relic is really conceptual. You all get lost in the walls of this house. There’s of course the ending. Natalie was saying how this is all about a “generational disease.” What conversations did you have with her about all of this stuff?

Bella: Those are so many questions…

Emily: [laughs]

Bella: I’m just trying to think what we talked about in terms of going into the maze. I remember watching it last night and thinking about what Natalie had reminded me of. Going in there, she didn’t want to have me just running around crying for the rest of the film. There were moments where I would pull myself together and find strength, and there were moments where I would fall apart. I know she wanted different levels of that. I think it was just about this growing horror. Even walking into a cupboard it’s like, “What? Why does the cupboard keep going?” You’re kind of following your curiosity and then the moment you pull the pin, you realize that you’re trapped. But I think the most horrifying thing was finding those notes. That really indicates her psychological demise and her kind of devolving into madness.

And the thing, Em, that you were talking about earlier regarding the person that you’ve had on a pedestal your whole life, who you’ve loved the most, who looked after you, I believe that was my relationship with my grandmother. My mom was probably off working, busy. My dad was nowhere to be seen. When that person who loved you is now regarding you with suspicion like, “Get rid of them,” to not take that personally is an impossibility.

Emily: Yeah.

Bella: Even though you know rationally that it’s not about you. So I think it’s that idea coupled with the feeling of being trapped, which was Natalie’s main focus in terms of talking about the labyrinth. Then it was just the technicalities. I remember Natalie freaking out because the labyrinth was reduced right before we started shooting. It started out as this huge set and then with whatever budget she ended up with, she had to make a small set look like a much larger labyrinth. I feel like there was a lot of chat about that, too.

I think Natalie used that space incredibly well, more so now that you’re telling me this.

Bella: She’s extraordinary! We’re going into this with a first-time feature filmmaker. I’d watched the proof of concept short Creswick. I was like, “Okay, this is great,” but you just don’t really know at the end of the day. You’re totally taking a leap of faith. She’s young and she seems so unassuming.

Emily: And sweet.

Bella: Almost sweet and meek. I remember talking to my agents being like, “God, I have no idea.” You have this idea that directors need to be vicious.

Emily: Yeah, yeah, yeah!

Bella: And she’s just this quiet genius.

That’s lovely.

Emily: I know.

For more on Relic, check out this clip courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival:

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