Beyond the star-studded premieres, the red carpets, the haute couture, and the million dollar acquisition deals, film festivals (ideally) exist to give a platform to the kinds of movies otherwise neglected (or actively shunned) by the monoculture. Time of Moulting is one of those films — a small, quiet, discomforting gem destined to be ignored by all but the most intrepid filmgoer, forever threatening to fall through the cracks of our collective film culture. It feels like a precious object, something unique and in need of special handling. It’s also, it must be noted, an absolutely terrifying film. Written and directed by Sabrina Martens, with beautiful, sun-dappled cinematography by Jan Fabi, Time of Moulting begins as a kind of oblique portraiture, a series of static shots that very gradually sketch the life of Stephanie (Zelda Espenschied), a precocious young girl who looks to be 7 or 8 years old. She’s curious and full of energy, as most young children are. It’s a curious formal strategy that demands a viewer’s patience and requires one to give into the rhythms of this day-to-day existence. But soon, Martens begins to chart the cracks in this familial foundation: the house is cramped and in some disrepair; father Reinhardt (Bernd Wolf) is quick to temper, casting a quiet pall over the film whenever he appears onscreen. Stephanie’s mother (Freya Kreutzkam) is kind and loving, but also stricken with some unknown ailment that requires her to rest frequently. Stephanie complains about bullies at school, while her mother bestows cryptic warnings about avoiding the dangers outside. At some point, it also becomes clear that the camera is not leaving the home, never traveling further than the backyard. What at first feels cozy, as Stephanie and her mother read books in bed or sit on the couch together, becomes increasingly claustrophobic.
At roughly the halfway point, there’s a fade to black that ruptures the film and reveals Martens’ design: a subtitle appears that simply states ‘ten years later,’ and Time of Moulting becomes a bifurcated narrative, each half now in conversation with the other. Stephanie is now a sullen teenager, played by Miriam Schiweck, angry at her parents and exploring bizarre, potentially dangerous sexual urges. All of the small warning signs present in the first half have now blossomed into a disquieting portrait of a damaged young woman. Fabi’s cinematography also undergoes changes, using less natural light and utilizing a wider angle lens to slightly exaggerate space. The house, already cluttered, is now, ten years later, overflowing with junk, a decade’s worth of detritus crammed into this already small space. There’s no shocking violence or murder on display here, no dark revelations of family secrets or historical atrocities. Martens works in more subtle ways, instead suggesting that neglect can, over time, manifest in more mundane, but no less damaging, ways. Time of Moulting is horror of a unique but palpable variety, capturing every parent’s nightmare: the fear that wrong choices can doom a child to a life of emotional turmoil.