"Cats die, music fades, but art is for keeps".
"Art, as an object, doesn’t have a purpose. Art, as a testament to humanity's unique ability to cheat death, gives meaning to our fragile lives." (Marco Vito Oddo- Collider.com review of "Inside")
With his feature debut, Vasilis Katsoupis adds his name to the pantheon of the so-called Greek Weird Wave, a cinematic tradition having its roots in Nikos Nikolaides's cult classic The Wretches Are Still Singing (1979) and brought to prominence in the recent years through the work of Yorgos Lanthimos, now considered to be one of the most audacious and provocative filmmakers worldwide. Being so much more than your typical one-person survival drama, Inside is, principally, an exploration of the meaning and essence of art and its role in human experience and existence. The film's action is strictly confined within the interior of an affluent New York penthouse which is adorned with "smart", high-technology systems and a variety of treasures relating to modern as well as contemporary art works. There is one protagonist, an art thief named Nemo, who monopolizes the screen as the few actors who complete the cast appear in a handful of brief, feverish, dream-like sequences which are interpolated in the main narrative and provide a fleeting interlude from the protagonist's struggle for perseverance. The director, along with the screenwriter Ben Hopkins, aspire to tackle valid and vital issues concerning art as the ultimate creator of meaning, the correlation between the artistic process and human durability, and furthermore wish to explore the complementary relationship between creation and destruction. Marco Vito Oddo, in his review of the film published on Collider.com, provides an alternative perspective regarding the filmmakers' tonal intentions: "Inside is, above all, about the intrinsic connection between art and the human desire to exist beyond the confines of time", thus furthermore discerning the motif of temporality, a keen observation as the director's take on ephemerality is idiosyncratic, adding another subject for contemplation All the above will certainly ring a bell to those who have studied meticulously the work of philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche whose name is linked with his renowned theory of art and aesthetics as the primary source for creating meaning. Katsoupis has to be familiar with the German giant's thought as the, open-ended and ambiguous, finale can be interpreted in Nietzschean terms, at least partially.
The film's premise is simple and certainly not original: Nemo enters the opulent apartment of an art collector in order to rob some paintings by the Austrian Expressionist painter Egon Schiele. Due to a last-moment mistake, the house goes to lockdown mode, leaving the protagonist entrapped in the house he intended to loot. After some initial frantic attempts to penetrate the impervious steel doors of the penthouse, Nemo realizes that he will have to adjust and face his predicament head-on. Thus, he begins to explore the massive residence, searching for food and water, the absolute basics for his survival. Nemo will have to use all his inventiveness and cunning in order to find solutions to these problems and a venerable part of the movie is consumed by Nemo struggling to figure out how he will quench his thirst in an apartment in which the temperature control has gone haywire and keeps climbing grade-by-grade, creating a suffocating atmosphere and making things all the more harder for the solitary protagonist of the story. Willem Dafoe's star shines brighter than ever and his solo performance carries the weight of the whole production on its shoulders. His emaciated, ascetic physique and expansive set of expressive skills is further highlighted by the director's choice to make heavy use of close-up shots, capturing the quintessence of the character's agony and desperation with the audience being able to witness the mix of sweat and tears crossing his skeletal face, a testament of a man in mental and physical anguish. Dafoe has played many characters whose soul is in torment, let's remember Lars Von Trier's Antichrist or Abel Ferrara's Pasolini, and he is a proven master of bringing forth to the audience the complexities and contradictions caused by immense human pain.
I read in some reviews around the web that the movie is a thriller lacking thrills and this could be a credible critique if the film truly intended to be a survival thriller. The truth is that Katsoupis embarked on a quest to achieve immortality as a filmmaker by delivering a story about a man who gains contact with his own inner artist in the midst of living a nightmarish scenario and attach a new meaning to everything surrounding his existence in the penthouse. In his review of the movie on movieweb.com, Matthew Mahler writes: "Inside is a study of the importance we place on art and objects and how they may be the last way we can actually survive this life meaningfully". There are more questions raised: What's the importance of art when the basic human needs cannot be covered? Can art exist in vacuum, lacking any explanatory context? Is art even relevant to human wellbeing when the chips are down? As the story moves forward, Nemo gets more and more distracted and disoriented, gradually surrendering to an all-encompassing self-loathing that prompts him to destroy the works of art embellishing the house: "while Nemo is destroying the cold and static works of art he finds in the flat, he's also creating art as an extension of his mind". He incarnates the Nietzschean vision of the human as an artist who freely destroys and rebuilds in an eternal play, similar to those preferred by little kids who like to build sandcastles only to destroy them a little later. In the last part of the film, Nemo leaves a note to the apartment's owner(s) by writing on the walls: "I'm sorry I destroyed it. But maybe it needed to be destroyed. After all, there is no creation without destruction".
Katsoupis made this film in the postmodern, post-pandemic era and created a protagonist who can be perceived as a "postmodern Robinson Crusoe" (P. Bradshaw-Guardian), though he is acting within a high-tech, cold setting rather than the great outdoors. Nemo is the film's focus as he becomes a symbol for human resilience and physical as well as psychical survival. As the energy is drained from his body and soul, be becomes -unwillingly- a part in the great process of artistic creation, a man who, against all odds, retains his ability to give meaning to his environment. Inside definitely doesn't intend to lash out against the capitalistic view of art as commodity, even though there are some parts that can be construed in such a manner. The creators' narrative scope is as grand as possible and the themes are treated in a highly delicate way, mainly hinting rather than exposing, leaving the audience free to connect the dots by themselves. It's NOT a boring film: the ennui that you will most certainly experience while watching is swiftly incorporated into the narrative process. It's not the viewer who gets turned off. It's the protagonist. We take a deep dive into Nemo's state of mind, a remarkable feat achieved by Katsoupis who subverts the audience's expectations preparing them for a genre-defined, survival-movie-like-all-the-others. I believe that the young director will stir the cinematic waters in the years to come, bolstering Greek status quo in regards to filmmaking. In lieu of a conclusion I will cite Nicholas G. Chernyshevsky's quote about art and its relation to reality: "Art must not even think of comparing itself with reality, much less of surpassing it in beauty [...] Let art be content with its fine and lofty mission of being a substitute for reality in the event of its absence, and of being a manual of life for man".