HA VU discusses Thassilo Weber’s debut short film that deals with psychosis through a Freudian lens.
Flick of the fingers; cigarette lit. Turn of the head – a rustle. Chos, Thassilo Weber’s debut short film, is peppered with brusque moments that interrupt its flow and calm exterior. Chos — a deliberately cryptic abbreviation of psychosis — follows the mental deterioration of protagonist Theo, reflected through his interactions with housemaid Ida and gardener Milton. Weber’s few characters personify the id, ego, and superego of Freud’s model of the psyche. With supernatural undertones, Chos slowly replaces Theo’s reality with the inescapable nightmare that is his own mind.
Returning to a sun-flooded house filled with well-worn books and silver frames, Theo instead makes a beeline for its darkroom. Negatives and photographs piled high, he develops the films left behind by his late grandmother. The bare-boned piano soundtrack lures the audience into a sense of security that becomes more and more fragile as Chos progresses. When a dark-cloaked figure is caught in the corner of his eye, disappearing as quickly as it came, Theo’s sanity goes into freefall. Venturing into the yellow-hued woods and rummaging around the darkroom chaos, Theo desperately searches an explanation for his visions: was it a trick of the light? Or was it something more? It is impossible to know where reality ends and the nightmare starts; the audience, like Theo himself, begin doubting what we see – we cannot know for sure if our eyes are seeing truth.
Chos’s intelligently changing mise en scène mirrors Theo’s unhinged state of mind. His bedroom, once a retreat, now imprisons him in paranoia. The bookshelf, the chessboard, the lamp – all have fallen out of place and are flung every which way. Worried about Theo’s irrational obsession, gardener Milton offers the simplest of explanations: ‘Sometimes our minds can play tricks on us’. The id and superego are caught in a power struggle, with Milton desperately trying (and failing) to drag Theo back to his ‘ideal self’. Weber’s use of props is meticulous and subtle, illustrated through the strategic placement of an otherwise inconsequential doll. A metaphor for the extent of his psychosis, the doll, first seen in a corner amongst the books, now sits atop the shelf as if to dictate his every thought.
Chos’ incredible projection of mood owes much to Benedict Gong’s soundtrack. Soothing piano pieces envelop listeners in a warm sense of safety through familiarity. These are interspersed and contrasted with strings segments, at once jarring and perturbing. Plucked and played to psychotic precision, Gong’s composition lends the film much of its power to relax, or unsettle, or build a tension more horrific than the nightmarish vision itself. Psychological thriller is a subgenre so thoroughly explored that tropes and clichés are almost inevitable; Gong’s music is vital in steering Chos away from that. More effective still is the sound editing. Sound producer Luis Felipe Gonçalves’ attention to the minutiae of everyday sounds removes the disconnect between audience and screen. Tick of the clock, click of the heel – these nuanced hums are amplified without being melodramatic.
Drawing inspiration from Christopher Nolan’s filmography, Weber explores the malleable nature of memory and identity. Theo’s behaviour is poorly regulated because he cannot differentiate dreams from reality. By ignoring Milton’s prohibiting advice that functions as the superego, Theo’s persistent search for the shadow is but a wild goose chase. Entangled in the mystery, Theo is stripped of his sense of self. A surreal montage features not least a dead grandmother caked in blood. Its sheer absurdity is a breakaway from the intimate, drawn-out shots from Mateus Cabral’s handheld camera. Even as Chos comes to an end, the reveal is entirely frustrating. In the same vein as Scorsese’s Shutter Island, Chos may well be a mere visualisation of Theo’s psychosis.
Weber’s heavy involvement in the film as director, screenwriter, and lead allows him to edit ruthlessly; Chos avoids the trap of being self-indulgent. However, having distance from the film would help to evaluate it as a coherent entity. In a film with stylised set designs, music and cinematography, dialogue needed a smaller role. Examples of it here are slightly clumsy expositions that weigh down the film. Yet, given that Chos is not only a short but also a first venture into filmmaking, Weber has the confidence that allows self-criticism and production at the same time. An ambitious start, Chos paves the way for many projects to come.
‘Chos’ was the September ‘Film of the Month’ at the Oasis Short Film Festival Screening Series, and preselected for Cinema London and Cinema Los Angeles.