TIFF Industry Selects: Magic Mountains
9 September 2020
High mountains, high tension
In Urszula Antoniak's psychologically charged, gripping and at times vertigo-inducing Magic Mountains, a woman accepts her former partner's request to climb one last mountain together. Only then can he cut the cords that bind them.
Lex (Thomas Ryckewaert) is a successful novelist. Hannah (Hannah Hoekstra) is his erstwhile girlfriend who has called time on their relationship. After a lot of persuasion she accepts his invitation to embark on one last trip to the Polish mountains, climb a precipitous peak and be airlifted from the summit by helicopter. At which point, their relationship will be over, he promises. He will never contact her again, nor even think of her.
Easy? Not, as it happens.
Their guide on the first part of the Polish odyssey is the handsome and commanding Voytek, who also feeds and waters them before their departure, putting up with Lex's cynicism. He also feels compelled to look after Hannah's back when they set off, giving her a safety whistle. In the foothills everything seems fine, but as the altitude rises so does the tension, and little by little Hannah begins to suspect Lex's motives...
"It's a classic set-up, almost theatrical, drawn against a scenic background where the magnitude of nature puts such pressure on people that certain themes and conflicts are magnified too," comments director Antoniak. "That makes it dramatic, that makes it cinematic."
The cinematography of Magic Mountains is stunning, and the bravery of the actors, all of whom scaled the dizzying peaks, is to be applauded. "You either go the pure Hollywood way where everything is CGI, or you use stuntmen. Or you say we are going towards realism," expresses Antoniak. "We don't cheat. If I show people climbing we don't simulate that they are climbing. They actually know what they are doing. All the actors were trained. That really is Hannah and Thomas, and it really is that high."
She adds: "There are some moments in the film when you can see that both actors are terrified. In the Valley of Stones when the scree and rocks are falling, this is really happening. Those rocks were really moving."
The alpine exteriors were shot in a national park, which meant that drone and helicopter use was outlawed. Locations had to be reached by foot, therefore, which necessitated four hours of trekking every day by cast and crew.
As one can imagine, preparation was key. "We had very good lenses, we knew that we had very good locations and the climbing scenes were very well choreographed with the climbing specialist," says Antoniak. "It's like a sex scene. You have to be very well prepared with the choreography. You cannot invent things on the spot. It's the same with climbing. Every movement has to be practised and put on this mountain in a certain place so that it is safe and checked, and you do it in 20 days for a small budget."
Antoniak describes the psychological motivations evident in the set-up at the film's opening, when Lex asks Hannah to accompany him on the trip.
"He tells her, ‘you are a goddess, you are the centre of my life, without you I am nobody.' There is no woman in the world who would not be attracted to this. This is the woman with power," she explains. "I would agree to it simply to make fun of him, as he is kind of funny, super-serious, romantic, dark and brooding.
"Because what she knows, what both of them know is that, in the mountains, it is a situation of absolute balance. She needs him as much as he needs her."
"Unless," Antoniak concludes, "and this is a one in a million chance, there is something which she didn't factor for..."
For more information:
Prod: Family Affair Films
TIFF Industry Selects screening: Sat 12 Sept, 10:00