Unlikable protagonists are a vital and often helpfully sympathetic tool in modern storytelling. They provide fresh perspectives and spur inventive writing — and they are also a huge liability if they alienate an audience. In Firstborn, director Aik Karapetian orchestrates a nerve-wracking balance between the intrigue of his beautifully strange film and the narcissism and cowardice of his central character, Francis (Kaspars Znotins), and succeeds in crafting a queasy portrait of a loveless couple trapped in marriage.
When the film opens, Katrina (Maija Doveika) and Francis nourish a husk of their former relationship. At a house party, Katrina drunkenly jokes about adultery as Francis quietly absorbs it. On their walk home, the two are accosted by a young, handsome biker who punches Francis, sexually threatens Katrina, then walks away with her purse. They are obviously rattled, but more importantly, Francis’ pride is deeply hurt, and he spends the next few days being possessive and paranoid about Katrina’s interactions with other men.
Fearing that someone else may ultimately be able to help Katrina seek justice, Francis takes matters into his own hands. He finds the culprit (Dainis Grube) and, in the middle of the woods, with nobody else around, attempts to compel him to apologize to his wife by offering him the money in his wallet. This obviously doesn’t work, and the issue quickly escalates. The confrontation changes Francis, but not that much, and he and Katrina continue to have problems even though they find themselves bound tighter together by a pregnancy.
An undercurrent of humor runs through Firstborn, but it runs very deep. The filmmakers seem entirely aware of Francis’ more weaselly qualities and use them to great effect, but the mood is generally somber, understated, and claustrophobic. Karapetian focuses his attention on quiet, interstitial moments, and he consistently underplays big plot points to maintain focus on the anxiety and dread that begins to consume his characters.
Shot in bright, cool tones with a shallow focus, Firstborn sports a gorgeous and refined aesthetic. Location and set dressing are inventive, memorable, and slightly left of realism — as in the couple’s straight-up haunted nursery decor, or the attacker’s lair of industrial ruin in the forest. Much of the storytelling is visual, shot through with the dissonant drone of strings; Karapetian’s clearly aims to drown his characters in atmosphere.
Two scenes depict a family (who are friends of the couple) with painted faces and Japanese garb, playacting scenes of heroic battle. The contrast with Francis’ anti-heroic qualities is clear and welcome, but his character still poses a problem. One might want for a central character to succeed, or to be redeemed, but Francis’ motivations throughout seem so narrow and selfish that he is difficult to root for. In the end, Firstborn addresses that intelligently (and satisfyingly), but its vision of humanity skews very nihilistic. In that, mileage will vary, but appreciate its construction, get lost in its desolate atmosphere, and that nihilism goes down kind of easy.
Fantastic Fest runs September 21st – 28th. Visit the festival’s official website.