81 min | Christian Hallman | (Sweden) | 2015
Synopsis: Caroline Menard (Lanna Ohlsson) moves into a bleak apartment, with some strange neighbors, and it slowly becomes clear that she has suffered devastating losses—her husband left her, a child died (perhaps a miscarriage). She seems utterly alone with the exception of one friend, Emma (Alida Morberg), whose visit is crucially important to Caroline, although it’s clear that Caroline isn’t crucial to Emma, leaving her too early.
Sensoria is shot almost exclusively in Caroline’s ugly, sterile apartment building. The film builds suspense slowly, as Caroline walks in a slow, almost catatonic state through the routine of moving in, her senses and her affect clearly deadened. Strange things start happening—objects move on their own, act on their own; lights, electric toothbrushes, microwaves, turn on by themselves. Strange noises combine with the multitude of sounds of apartment living.
As the tension intensifies, however, its effect is undercut by the fact that we learn very early on that what haunts Caroline’s apartment is unequivocally supernatural. Given how damaged the Caroline is, the lack of ambiguity about what is happening to her seems like a missed opportunity.
The film begins with a quote from H. P. Lovecraft’s story, “The Tomb” (written in 1917, published in 1922): “Men of broader intellect know that there is no sharp distinction betwixt the real and the unreal.” This dictum articulates what all good ghost stories know to do—play on the border between natural and supernatural, make the viewers question what’s real and what’s not. In Caroline, Sensoria offers us a protagonist whose perceptions the audience may well distrust. We’re clued in to the fact that she’s seeing a psychiatrist (she missed an appointment), and she downs pills at regular intervals. The film could have put us in her perspective, made us doubt the reality she thought she was seeing. From the beginning, though, the director chooses to show us unambiguously supernatural phenomena—things Caroline doesn’t see. We (not Caroline) see the cupboard door fly open and the plate fall out; we (not Caroline) see the figure of an old woman pass by a doorway. The viewers know, then, that the apartment is haunted. Unlike Lovecraft’s “men of broader intellect,” the audience is forced to recognize a sharp distinction between the real and the unreal. The film would have been more suspenseful had we not been able to draw this line, if we had experienced what was happening through Caroline’s uncertain eyes.
In another sense, though, the film does inhabit an indistinct terrain where real and unreal mingle. Bereft of virtually everything, almost totally alone, Caroline’s sense of reality, of being real, is evaporating. At around the middle of the film, when her friend Emma visits, she shows her a photograph of herself—it’s blurry—and Caroline tells her friend she thinks she’s breaking up from the inside. This moment predicts the trajectory of the film, as Caroline does, indeed, lose herself. And she loses herself, certainly, to supernatural forces that are outside of herself—but also to the huge emptiness that’s already inside (what Robert Frost so eloquently called his “desert spaces”). The film is best, I think, in the resonance it thus creates between inner and outer worlds—suggesting that we do, perhaps, conjure up the ghosts we need.
The directing and cinematography is definitely a highlight of Sensoria, constantly drawing attention both to boundaries and to their constant blurring. There are repeated shots of doors, windows, gates, padlocks—as Caroline tries to keep things in their place. But then there are the beautiful repeated shots of water welling and dripping from a tap, as well as other images of flowing, flooding liquids, all of which suggest the inexorable sweeping away of boundaries—at least for Caroline.
Sensoria is a thoughtful “haunted house” film, telling both a conventional ghost story but also suggesting that we find the ghosts we already carry with us.