“The things of my mother’s that I kept don’t suit the place now,” says Glenda (Nia Roberts) absently as she preps dinner in her modernist sculpture of a house, set on a remote hillock. “They feel … primitive.” Lee Haven Jones’ sharp, striking Welsh-language SXSW midnight movie “The Feast” is designed as a critique of Glenda’s disdain, her casual snobbery toward the heritage and history of the farmland she grew up on. And yet this austere and engrossing little horror could almost be charged with a similar crime: “The Feast” laments our grasping era’s loss of respect for the ancient land, its flora and fauna and earthy folk culture, but it is itself as coolly, gleamingly modern as brushed steel.
Glenda is talking to Cadi (Annes Elwy), the last-minute replacement for her usual domestic help. Bedraggled and untidy, with a tendency to leave dirty marks on linens and doorways when she’s not careful, the taciturn Cadi hardly belongs in these immaculate designer spaces. But she is curious about them, moving through the house like an alien, sneaking a look into bathroom cabinets, trying on earrings and suddenly, frighteningly, braying a laugh at her own reflection.
Perhaps her oddness would raise more alarm if the house’s occupants were not so wrapped up in their own little perversions. Glenda’s husband Gwyn (Julian Lewis), a bluff, corruptible politician who spends most of his time in London, is out stalking the land with a shotgun, pretending to have caught two rabbits for dinner when in fact he happened on them already dead and trussed up. Their son Gweirydd (Siôn Alun Davies) is obsessed with training for a triathlon as a means to deflect from his recent, later revealed, disgrace, while his brother Guto (Steffan Cennydd) is here against his will, dragged up from London to dry out after an overdose scare.
Through the massive windows and down the long corridors of the oppressively angular house, the characters spy on each other in moments of privacy, catching addict Guto sniffing desperately at an oily rag, or Gweirydd fondling himself through his cycling lycra, or Cadi pressing her nose against the expensive abstract painting that hangs in the dining room. Out here you might be isolated and alienated, but you are never properly alone. Perhaps that’s why Glenda has built herself her strange little black-walled sanctuary, a gloomy wet room sauna that her friend likens to a prison cell.
And when the characters aren’t watching each other, the perfect symmetries of Bjorn Bratberg’s sinister, predatory camerawork are watching them, creeping down hallways, sneaking glances through doors left ajar, observing their nasty little peccadillos with a calm detachment edged with derision. Soon, we like these people as little as they like each other, and yet the chilly control of Jones’ filmmaking, enhanced by the pristine, deadened soundscape and Samuel Sim’s intriguing, atmospheric score, keeps our attention squirming on the hook.
The dinner that evening will be a small enough affair, just the family, their neighbor Mair (Lisa Palfrey) whom Glenda has known since childhood, and Gwyn’s business partner, Euros (Rhodri Meilir) an oily little arriviste with a BMW and Italian leather shoes. There is, of course an agenda: The rapacious couple are anxious to convince their neighbors to grant mineral extraction rights to Euros. When the down-to-earth Mair demurs gently, Glenda is almost scornful of her old friend’s lack of greed; the most enraging thing about new-money entitlement is the assumption that it’s aspirational, as though, given the chance, everyone would choose a loveless luxury lifestyle just like this one.
But of course Cadi, around whom expensive wine bottles have a tendency to smash and heavy axeheads have a propensity to slip off their handles, has an agenda too. It’s one we can see coming a long way off, but then “The Feast” is not the twisty-turny type of horror. It deals less in revelation than in slow-burning mood, and builds to a final crescendo of comeuppance for these awful people that is grotesque, gory and grimly enjoyable. Even more impressive is to have achieved the impression of wasteful opulence on such a small budget, but Jones is wise to leave larger spectacle up to the powers of suggestion, while embellishing where he can with convincingly gross details: a maggot-ridden leg wound, a blood-soaked bedspread, a coughed-up mat of human hair. The plot is simple and the moral hardly subtle — right up to the blunt Buñuelian sarcasm that is Euros snarfing food off his plate like a pig at a trough while in the background a terrified Glenda hunts for a kitchen knife to use as a weapon. But the direction is so confident and the craft so impeccable that “The Feast,” though built from few ingredients, fills you up like a three-course meal.
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