“Art is forever.” This turn of phrase, uttered by Willem Dafoe’s character Nemo in Vasilis Katsoupis’ narrative directorial debut “Inside,” is a devilish little saying of multi-layered meaning. He spins around in your brain like a pinball, the same way Nemo spins in the luxury apartment where he’s trapped after an art heist gone wrong.
“Art Is Forever” – Talks about the way we place value on art, and it’s also a shameless jibe when Nemo helps himself with million-dollar works of modern art in a wealthy collector’s penthouse . Later, it is a statement that he will haunt and even threaten Nemo, alone, in an increasingly dire survival situation, with only art to nourish him.
Written by Ben Hopkins (from a concept by Katsoupis), “Inside” pits the most primitive elements of humanity against the most advanced to unravel the contradictory and alienating nature of our world today. A coldly perceptive camera takes this wealthy collector’s apartment, far away in Kazakhstan, when Nemo breaks in, overriding the security panel with codes given to him on a walkie-talkie by his partner. Unable to locate a specific painting, he is running out of time and tries to escape, but the security system fails and he is trapped inside the apartment, a heavy carved wooden door sealing the vault.
Some suspension of disbelief is required to believe that there really is no way out. But this highly automated smart home, which plays the “Macarena” when the fridge is open too long and has a full sprinkler system in case of fire, is so technologically advanced that there isn’t even a phone, computer or outside access. . It is a luxurious prison, a gilded cage filled with priceless works of art that become worthless in this harrowing situation of survival; after all, you can’t eat art.
But Katsoupis and Hopkins don’t completely undermine the value of artistic expression. Nemo becomes this quarantine nightmare: first adapting, then fighting, literally battling the elements as the home automation system fails, heat-batters him, then freezes him. The water supply has been turned off and he resorts to scooping it up from the indoor automatic sprinklers and licking up the moisture from the freezer. He dines on caviar before starving to death, turning a hungry gaze to the exotic fish swimming undisturbed in his tank high in the sky.
It’s about “Survivor: Penthouse Apartment,” and it maps our 2020 experience of staying home during the pandemic (watch Nemo pretend to host a cooking show) and explores some of the trauma that comes from this kind of isolation and alienation engendered by the technology that is meant to make our lives more comfortable but, more often than not, keeps us apart.
Nemo only has works of art to keep him company, but his desire for connection and expression doesn’t die. He develops parasocial relationships with building staff on security monitors, unable to yell at them or connect with them. He eventually becomes a kind of primitive man, scribbling on the walls, creating strange structures and altars, developing an almost religious fervor in isolation from him.
Katsoupis questions the overly inflated value of art while reminding us that expression is inherently human and elemental. It is closer to the top of our hierarchy of needs than we might assume.
Katsoupis asks these searching and provocative questions about humanity, but offers no clear messages or answers. Rather, he lets his muse Dafoe simply inhabit this harrowing journey with her uncanny magnetism and sense of timelessness, in a performance that is both primal and transcendent. Nemo becomes a figure straight out of Greek mythology, wielding the forces of creation and destruction, but it’s unclear if he’s Sisyphus, Prometheus, or maybe even Icarus.
Walsh is a film critic for Tribune News Service.
Classification: R, for language, some sexual content and nude images
Execution time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: Starts March 17 in general release