The question of who we are without our memories is raised with impressive skill and depth of feeling by director Claire Carré in this superb debut. In Embers, humanity has suffered from some kind of event that has robbed us all of memory.
Carré and her co-writer Charles Spano don’t preface their film with any explanation beyond a man speaking in voice-over, listing the things he’d like to remember, including Saturday morning cartoons and his lover’s freckles.
The narrative flits between characters, tracking their movements and struggles over the course of two of three days. There’s the young couple (Jason Ritter and Ivy Gocheva) who wake up together and realise that they must be a couple, even though they can’t remember their own names. There’s a teacher (Tucker Smallwood), who lives in his cabin in the woods and is aided by his own self-help mechanisms. There’s a dangerous roving figure of chaos (Karl Glusman), who has no guide except his own violent impulses. And there’s a small boy (Silvan Friedman), whose wandering takes him from one possible parental figure to the next.
Meanwhile, teenage Miranda (Greta Fernandez) and her father (Roberto Cots) live in an underground bunker, safe from the disease but severed from the outside world.
The haunting landscape that Carré creates, combined with Todd Antonio Somodevilla’s striking but unshowy cinematography, lends itself beautifully to this tale of lost identity and fragile connections. This looks like a world that has fallen apart gradually: abandoned houses, empty churches and derelict buildings. But potential disaster waits around every corner, as accumulated memories can be lost with a simple moment of shock, surprise or wandering attention.
The Chaos figure is pursuing a woman and stops dead in his tracks when he suddenly encounters a white horse. A kindly man who has been taking care of the small boy abruptly greets him like a stranger. A young woman (Dominque Swain) who briefly looks after the boy in her house full of childish toys tells the child that “Nothing bad has ever happened to me,” with implausible certainty.
The most immediately affecting of these figures are the guy and the girl, wonderfully played by Ritter and Gocheva. Their tentative but certain affection is lovely, but it is constantly under threat from the fact that, at any moment, they may lose this one thing that they can count on. Carré illustrates this perfectly early on as they decide to not venture down a corridor in case they can’t find their way back, and from then on every step away from each other is a heartbreaking risk.
Meanwhile, the frustration of Miranda at being forced to live as an insect in a jar is countered by the fact that, if she decides to leave her father and venture into the real world, the memories she has of her mother and her friends will be gone. Physical freedom comes at a tremendous cost but, as the film goes on to ask, how do we weigh the pain of losing important memories against the ability to let go of painful ones?
Embers has a premise that is potent and affecting, and that concept is backed up by understated but impressive direction, excellent performances and an excellent score by Kimberly Henninger and Shawn Parke, resulting in a powerful, thoughtful and moving work of science-fiction that engages the head and the heart.
It’s no wonder that this has proved to be such a favourite at festivals (including Fantasia Film Festival); fans of Another Earth duo Mike Cahill and Brit Marling should seek this out immediately, and note Carré as a talent to watch.