The Shudder film successfully merges a queer romance with Jewish folk horror.
Falling in love can be a beautiful but very scary thing. It means being vulnerable, trusting someone, learning how to compromise even if you don’t want to. It means merging lives, and making time for each other without losing yourself in the process. Often, you have to meet each other’s parents at some point, an entirely different kind of terrifying altogether. A lot of future happiness (if there’s a future at all) for a couple rides on parental opinion. Sometimes a parent sets impossible standards for anyone dating their child to meet. Sometimes they’re just not ready to admit that their child has grown up, and is ready to make a life of their own.
Sometimes, there’s something far darker and dangerous going on, as in Gabriel Bier Gislason’s Attachment, slow-burn but effective Danish horror that manages to juggle a queer romance with Jewish folklore, and not drop anything in the process.
Maja (Josephine Park) is a struggling actress who has a library meet-cute with Leah (Ellie Kendrick), a British grad student studying in Denmark. Their connection is immediate and electric, and the two become inseparable right away. After Leah has a seizure and breaks her leg, Maja takes care of her, with the patience and tenderness found in a much longer, lived-in relationship. When it comes time for Leah to return to her native London, still hobbling around on crutches, Maja offers to go back with her, not just to continue taking care of her, but because she doesn’t want to say goodbye.
Leah’s Orthodox Jewish mother, Chana (Sofie Gråbøl), who lives in an apartment just downstairs from Leah, gives Maja a chilly reception. It has nothing to do with Maja being gentile (and a woman), but whatever it is results in increasingly bizarre, sinister behavior, such as entering Leah’s apartment at all hours of the day and night without permission, not allowing Maja to eat the food she prepares for Leah, and forcing Maja to leave the house so she can give Leah a mysterious, ritualistic “massage” in private.
Leah dismisses Chana’s behavior as merely being “overprotective,” but even she eventually begins to realize that the situation is neither healthy for her nor safe for Maja. Complicating matters further, Leah herself begins acting strangely, particularly when she and Maja take a trip out to the countryside, out from under Chana’s watchful eye.
Considering how much of Judaism is steeped in a rich folklore, it’s surprising that there isn’t more horror inspired by it. Catholics seemed to have long ago cornered the market in it, to the point where you can almost predict the scene in which some well-meaning priest is told by a stern superior that the Church hasn’t performed a documented exorcism in years (upon which the priest will simply go ahead and perform one anyway, they always do). There’s no reason to treat Judaism as so insular and mysterious that those outside the faith won’t understand it. Gislason’s script wisely depicts Maja, a gentile, as the audience surrogate, so that it can get away with a scene in which another character explains what might be going on without it seeming forced or clumsy.
Attachment’s strength isn’t so much in the reveal of what’s actually happening with Leah and her mother, but rather in the clever misdirection leading up to it. It follows all the beats of a “creepy mom” movie, and then turns them on their head in a way that is unexpectedly emotional. Further adding to the emotional core many other movies in this genre lack is Maja and Leah’s very sweet and believable relationship. Their chemistry is palpable, and one can understand why the brash Maja would want to take care of the meeker, fragile Leah. The film’s title has multiple meanings – the attachment between a mother and child, a romantic attachment, and…well, I don’t want to give anything away.
While not much happens action-wise until the last few minutes (and even then, working on a limited budget, it’s not a lot), Attachment does a lot with mood, and the unfolding mystery of what exactly Maja is walking into. It’s also at times a surprisingly funny movie, particularly in Maja’s awkward attempts to ingratiate herself to Chana. It’s hard meeting the parents, and wanting them to like you, and that’s even before the supernatural gets involved.
Attachment is now available on Shudder.