[Mild Spoilers Ahead]
Ten minutes into Michael Thelin’s Emelie, I felt queasy and apprehensive. Thirty minutes in I was squirming in my seat, desperately trying to remember the last time a film had made me so uncomfortable—finally settling on Lars von Trier’s gruesome symphony of infant death and genital mutilation Antichrist (2009). After an hour my stomach and sides were literally cramping. When the end finally came, I felt a wave of relief as my knotted nerves knuckled and relaxed. In a mere 80 minutes Thelin had subjected me to one of the most powerful physical experiences I can remember having this side of a movie screen.
And yet there is very little gore in Emelie: no decapitations, no effulgences of blood and viscera. There are moments of violence, but they are filmed in a very PG-13 manner. Thelin perfectly understands one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most important lessons: the threat and build-up to violence is always, always more terrifying than the violence itself.
That threat comes in the form of Anna (Sarah Bolger), a last minute replacement babysitter for three young children: Christopher (Thomas Bair), the perpetually smiling youngest child with a naughty streak; Sally (Carly Adams), the middle child and only daughter; and Jacob (Joshua Rush), a quiet and gloomy 11-year old whose “stones are dropping.” At first Anna seems pleasant, if not oddly lax in enforcing rules. “Sometimes it’s okay to destroy things just for fun,” she teases as she tears apart pillows for makeshift costumes. Initially, Jacob is quite the fan: she lets him wear his father’s forbidden motorcycle helmet and eat an entire box of cookies. But then things begin to get weird. Anna seems unusually interested in Christopher and takes a repulsive delight in teasing the sexually confused Jacob—at one point she makes him fetch her a new tampon and watch her insert it. By the time Anna forces the children to watch their pet snake kill and eat Sally’s hamster, we realize that their very lives are in danger.
I hesitate to mention anything else for fear of ruining the plot. All this makes it difficult to get across how disturbing the rest of the film is. But here’s the bottom line: though the last ten minutes veer dangerously close to the third act of Home Alone, the majority of the film focuses on the children trying and failing to come to terms with the madness that has befallen them. [Spoilers] Perhaps the most horrific scene involves Anna forcing Christopher and Sally to watch their parent’s sex tape. Thelin wisely doesn’t show any of the blatantly pornographic video footage. Instead he focuses on Christopher and Sally’s reactions: wide-eyed and uncomprehending, we can literally see them being mentally scarred. [End Spoilers] It reminded me of the sequence in Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005) where parents are forced to watch snuff footage of their children’s murders and the slave branding scenes in Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff (1954): showing the bystanders’ reactions is infinitely more stomach-churning than the actual violence taking place.