Tilman Singer’s Luz, as confounding as it is hypnotic, is one of the more fascinating horror films of the past few years. The narrative shifts forward and backward through time as the psyche of its title character is examined and manipulated by forces beyond her control. Much of Luz style can be credited its cinematography: shot on 16mm film, it heavily evokes elements of Italian horror films like Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond. However, the distinguishing trait of Luz — German director Singer’s feature debut — lies in its seamless split between objective reality and the title character’s subjective experience.
Luz opens with its titular protagonist (Luana Velis), a young Chilean cab driver, entering an almost empty police station. The police officers here uses a psychotherapist, Dr. Rossini (Jan Bluthardt), to hypnotize Luz and coerce her to remember the car accident she was in with a former schoolmate, Nora (Julia Riedler), just a few hours earlier. As the film goes on, it’s slowly revealed that a demonic entity is pursuing Luz out of love — and is desperate to reunite with her after a satanic ritual went awry years earlier when Luz was in Catholic school.
The most memorable sequence of Luz occurs midway through the film when Dr. Rossini begins his hypnosis of Luz in the police station. Chairs are set up in a large room to resemble the seats in a taxi cab and the doctor makes Luz imagine herself waiting at the airport and picking up Nora as she did a few hours ago. She eerily mimes rolling down a window, lighting a cigarette, and stepping on the brakes. Later on, she even talks to people who aren’t there and repeats the person’s response herself. We the audience slowly begin to hear the sounds that Luz does and then see the interior of the cab she imagines herself to be in. This slow descent into Luz’s memory is expertly directed and edited; like Luz herself, we begin to question whether what we’re seeing is actually happening or is being manipulated for us to see by outside forces like Dr. Rossini or the demon.
The three main actors —Velis, Bluthardt, and Rideler — are all terrific, especially considering each of their characters is either possessed by the demon or brought back within Luz’s memory of the accident. Velis, in particular, is remarkable in imitating actions under hypnosis and gives a deeply disturbing performance that could just as easily have been laughable. Additionally, the tone and look of Luz work well with the descent into Luz’s psyche. The 16mm film gives off a hazy appearance, and elements like dimly colored lights and thick smoke disguise the fact that much of the film takes place in one large room. Even though it’s clear Luz was made on a small budget, Singer uses it to his advantage by expanding a small story to a 70-minute runtime and experimenting with performances, editing, and non-diegetic sound.
Luz‘s short runtime, however, does limit the film to some degree. The film relies in a large part on its style and not much attention is given to the story. Most of the characters besides the title character are not explored in any great detail and are mainly used as vessels for the demon to use to get closer to Luz. Several recurring parts of the film — the profanity-filled prayer Luz often repeats and the ritual she performed in school that involved the demon — are never totally explained to the audience. While this narrative choice does enhance the mystery and ambiguity of Luz, it also could throw viewers off and leave them confused at every twist and turn of the film.
Despite those minor flaws, Singer’s Luz is a strange cocktail blend of classic Euro-horror and psychological drama, standing out as one of the most uniquely arresting movies of this year. The ideas Singer uses — a rabbit-hole into someone’s memory and seamlessly blending subjective past with the real present — are incredibly compelling as his debut feels fresher than any other mainstream horror film released this year. Luz may not gain the critical attention that Midsommar or Us have received, but it is nevertheless a significant debut that makes me eager to see what Singer has in store for his next feature.