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Misery Doesn't Love Company In Excruciating New Film 'Stinking Heaven'

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 11, 2015 9:01PM

Hannah Gross and Eléonore Hendricks in "Stinking Heaven." (Photo courtesy of Brigade Marketing.)

The press notes describe Nathan Silver's Stinking Heaven as a "black as tar comedy," but this micro-budgeted drama with experimental flourishes is too punishing to qualify as comic. Any intended humor or social satire is overwhelmed by a bleak and excruciatingly combative quality. This is an uncompromising movie to be sure, and I hope I never have to see it again.

The movie opens with the May-December wedding of Betty and Kevin (Eléonore Hendricks and Henri Douvry) in a group home for recovering addicts run by young married couple Jim and Lucy (Keith Poulson and Deragh Campbell). Even in the middle of this celebration, tensions show among the home's residents.

Though the film takes place in the early '90s, the home feels more like a late '60s hippie commune where peace-and-love values are crashing and burning. Group showers and folk song sing-alongs suggest tremendous discomfort, not any sort of harmony or enlightenment. The members film dramatic recreations of traumas from their years of substance abuse, but nobody seems to reap any positive benefit from these draining theatrics. The arrival of newcomer Ann (Hannah Gross), who has a past history with Betty, sparks a powderkeg of resentment.

Shot on a video camera popular for use on TV newscasts in the '80s, Stinking Heaven is as harsh visually as it is dramatically, with an overly bright, low-resolution look. Silver and Director of Photography Adam Ginsberg mainly stick to a handheld, docudrama style, but sometimes create avant-garde effects from the video's technical limitations—"ghosting," odd blurring, and daylight sometimes washing out the image.

The movie was largely improvised by the cast and the mainly unknown actors deliver superb performances all around. Whether Silver is a great director or simply excellent in his casting is hard to say, but the movie's power comes from the blistering exchanges between the actors. Douvry and Hendricks are particular standouts as the generationally mismatched couple.

Every argument, physical altercation and moment of acrimony convinces, but the movie's 70-minute running time is made up of almost exclusively antagonistic moments. Silver has been quoted as saying he was inspired by a line from Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit: "Hell is other people." A strong enough theme, but showing that hell and exploring it are two very different things.

One of this year's best independent films, The Mend, delved deeply into the allure and darkness of misanthropic personalities. Stinking Heaven is content to wallow in the darkness. It does so with blunt effectiveness, but whether audiences will want to share all this misery is another question.

Stinking Heaven. Directed by Nathan Silver. Story by Silver and Jack Dunphy. Starring Hannah Gross, Keith Poulson, Deragh Campbell, Eléonore Hendricks and Henri Douvry. 70 mins. No MPAA rating.

Opens Friday, Dec. 11 at Facets Cinémathèque.