From the moment the movie began, I had a funny feeling.
First, there were no opening credits — nothing to tell us who the producers or director were nor what famous actors would appear. No sign of even the author's name, like they showed in The Godfather. But I had seen Batman Begins, so I wasn't too worried.
Then I noticed there was no opening theme song (think Charade or Manhattan) to set the tone and tell me what to expect. But, during the past six months of online on-demand bingeing, I had seen all the James Bond movies and was used to waiting five minutes for the action and beautiful people and pulsating music to burst on the screen.
For the moment, all I saw was a table out in a pleasant backyard set with plenty of food and drink. The time was evening and the season was fall. The movie was in color — not high-definition, but it would do.
Then suddenly a couple entered the frame and sat down. I scanned their faces carefully. They looked strangely familiar but were neither famous nor beautiful. In fact, they were quite ordinary and frankly a little plump. Their clothes seemed a touch too festive for the informal occasion. But they looked friendly, rather flushed, even a bit excited. They started talking right away, exchanging some pleasantries, making a few small jokes — not particularly funny ones — that they laughed at themselves. Then, they looked deep into the camera and asked the most ordinary social questions … How are you doing? How's the family? Not the greatest dialogue and I couldn't quite figure out where the plot was going, but hey, the movie was just beginning.
They sat quietly for a while, looking back and forth at the camera and each other. I wondered if parts of this would be silent like in The Artist. Then they laughed nervously, reached out for the food, and began eating. They talked of very mundane things, and continued to periodically look at the camera nervously. Their awkwardness reminded me of the dinner at the in-laws in Shrek 2.
I wondered who these two rather pathetic, middle-aged people could be. Maybe he was a Nobel Prize winner, but she was the real brains behind the work. Maybe he was an adventurer and she owned a large farm in Africa. Or perhaps he was a famous resistance leader and while she admired him, she actually loved a short surly heart-broken café owner with a piano-playing sidekick. But in this movie, there would be no character development to speak of.
I couldn't quite figure out where the plot was going, but hey, the movie was just beginning.
Suddenly, as a contrast, I thought of that scene in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta takes Uma Thurman to a restaurant — and I hoped fervently that, like in the Tarantino masterpiece, a great song would start up and this couple would break out on the dance floor. But they didn't do that either.
Indeed, there was no music at all in this film. How was I to know what to feel — when to laugh, when to cry, when to empathize with the characters, when to suspect them, when to get scared, when to know everything would be just fine — if there were no musical cues?
Still, I felt certain that something dramatic must be about to happen, something like Mr. and Mrs. Smith each pulling out a long knife. Or Timothy Spall announcing to Kristin Scott Thomas that he was leaving her. Or maybe this couple was like Martha and George — although you wouldn't know it from their stilted dialogue — and another dysfunctional couple would join them.
The suspense was killing me, but I had to get up to go pee. I told my husband to hit pause.
When I came back, the movie was still running. I angrily asked him why he hadn't hit the pause button. My husband looked at me with glazed eyes and said that he couldn't find the pause button. As Dickie Greenleaf said in The Talented Mr. Ripley, "Spoo-ky-ky-ky".
Then, suddenly, there was some action on the screen. The couple had pushed back their chairs and were standing up. They were both looking straight at the camera and appeared visibly upset. Now at last there would be some exciting dialogue. "I don't know what the hell you two are playing at, inviting us here and not talking to us all evening," said the man. "But we've had more than enough." The woman, sobbing quietly, added: "And to think that after months of isolating, you two were the first friends we had wanted to see."
Truly experimental, so avant-garde!
OK, now things were getting interesting. We watched intently. The couple looked at the camera expectantly for a few moments, then shook their heads, sighed heavily, and left the frame.
My husband and I sat for a minute, watching their empty chairs, waiting for them to return; they did not. Then we sat for another minute, waiting for the closing credits; there were none.
He looked gobsmacked — like First Officer Murdoch after shooting two passengers on the Titanic — and whispered, "I thought you had."
But later on that night, I began to reevaluate what we had seen. No opening or closing credits. No music. Unattractive actors. No plot or character development. A script that perfectly captured the utter boredom of our reality. Breaking down the fourth wall ... Truly experimental, so avant-garde!
Or wait. Maybe this was just the first episode of another one of those series they label "slow burn," designed to suck you in whether you want to watch or not. Anyway, I'm hooked and we'll definitely be there for the next episode.
*Ranjani Iyer Mohanty is a writer and editor, dividing her time between North America, Asia, and Netflix.