LFF review: ‘Styx’ is some of the most captivating cinema I’ve ever seen
12 October 2018 16:54
Wolfgang Fischer’s Styx was apparently one of the very first films the organizers of this year’s London Film Festival signed up for their programme. The minute they saw it at Berlin earlier this year, they knew they had to bring it to London, and I can completely see why. It’s some of the most captivating 94 minutes of cinema I’ve ever seen, carried by the magnificent Susanne Wolff who plays an emergency services doctor who’s sailing from Gibraltar to Ascension Island in the South Atlantic Ocean. The fact that the narrative is all but dialogue free — namely because for much of the film Wolff’s alone on her yacht in the middle of the ocean — only adds to the impressiveness of what’s a hugely physically demanding performance. The film is also beautifully shot; an awe-inspiring sense of human fragility achieved by the juxtaposition of great sweeping seascapes with confined close-ups of Wolff crewing the boat, just the slap of the waves and the wind to keep her company.
If you’re thinking it sounds like J. C. Chandor’s All is Lost (2013), in which Robert Redford has to draw on every last ounce of his strength when he finds himself all alone on a sinking yacht, you’d be right. For the first hour, possibly longer—I was so gripped by the action on the screen, I completely lost track of time while I was watching—it seemed like Styx was heading in the same direction as the earlier film. Thus it’s a huge surprise when it suddenly changes gear, becoming much, much more than the simple story of a lone woman pitted against the elements.
Styx is a story about the fight for survival, but it’s not Wolff who finds herself in danger. To be any more explicit would, I fear, be too much of a spoiler. The genius of this film — and I don’t use that term lightly — is the way that Fischer sets one story up, lulling his audience into a false sense of security, only to then send it spiralling in a completely different direction. What professes to be a narrative about sailing is actually an examination of ethics, empathy and personal responsibility in the modern world. An early scene that shows Wolff’s character attending a car accident in an unnamed German city tells us everything we need to know about her: she’s trained to respond to emergencies, she’s dedicated her life to saving that of others, but perhaps most importantly, she’s someone for whom ethical questions are very much a part of her everyday existence. But what she encounters all alone in the middle of the ocean is a huge test, both for her and for the audience. Fischer doesn’t shy away from plunging his audience headfirst into the murkiest of waters, he forces us to recognise our own complicity in the horror story unfolding on the screen. I found myself squirming in my chair throughout, initially from tension, but as time passed, more and more from the shame of culpability born from inaction.