BFI LFF 2017: Gray House (2017)


Is it possible to make something gray – whether it’s physical or mental – interesting? The word has – over time – become synominous with describing something – or someone – bland, indecipherable or non-committal, or all three. Fortunately – despite being frequently gray in colour – the new visual essay by filmmakers Matthew Booth and Austin Jack Lynch is neither bland nor non-committal, though frequently much of it is indecipherable.

Referred to as an ‘experimental’ film – which is just filmmaker jargon for unclassifiable – Gray House is really an extended, dialogue free compilation of hypnotic scenery, connecting seemingly random subject interviews with people who have, for one reason or other, lost their way in the world. Other characters who randomly flit throughout the bridging footage are well known actors, though as they never speak their presence could be seen as something of a moot point. Instead it is the real-life people whose existences play out in the film’s expanded segments – in an isolated oil field in North Dakota, and a women’s prison in Oregon – who are the true stars.

Though to the outside world the oil field workers are free men and the women in the prison confined, in reality you realise that they are all as trapped as each other by their environments. The fact that none of these people are named – and in the case of the female inmates, never explain the reason why their incarceration – simply adds to the air of separation and removal from reality, which lies like a blanket over the film’s proceedings. From the empty corridors connecting the rooms in the women’s prison from which their occupants will never be released, to the bleak, walled in environment where the oil field workers ‘serve their time’ until they earn the money to live the lives they imagine they want to, there is little real difference between the groups of seemingly disparate unfortunates depicted here.

Equally well the situations imagined in the interlaying narratives – at a fisherman’s bait camp on the Gulf Coast of Texas, in an intentional community in rural Virginia, and in a modern house in Los Angeles – depict people who’s imaginary lives are equally monotonous and lacking in fulfilment. It is the scenes here though which provide the film with some of it’s most somniferous and spellbinding footage.

One can’t deny Gray House‘s beauty, full as it is of mesmerising imagery which unfolds languidly across the screen. But you also can’t help wishing, by its conclusion, that the filmmakers had dug deeper and shown us more of what lies beneath the surface of its intriguing human characters.

Directors: Matthew Booth, Austin Jack Lynch
Writer: Austin Jack Lynch
Stars: Aurore Clément, Denis Lavant, Dianna Molzan
Runtime: 75 mins
Country: USA

Rating: ★★★½☆


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