Family Dinner, Austrian filmmaker Peter Hengl’s feature-length debut, has one insurmountable problem — it hews so closely to the folk-cult horror handbook that anyone who’s ever seen The Wicker Man or its progeny knows pretty much exactly where this is going very early on, turning the movie’s otherwise tidy 90-minute runtime into a waiting game. It’s moody and atmospheric, but ultimately doesn’t have anything new on its mind; echoes of Midsommar, Honeydew, & You Are Not My Mother abound, whether intentional or not. The film begins with teenaged Simi (Nina Katlein) arriving at her Aunt Claudia’s (Pia Hierzegger) secluded forest home for a long holiday visit. The two seem affectionate, but haven’t seen each other for some time; Claudia divorced her first husband, Simi’s maternal Uncle, and it is implied that Claudia and Simi’s mother don’t talk anymore. Claudia has a teenaged son, Filipp (Alexander Sladek), and is now remarried to an intense man named Stefan (Michael Pink). It’s revealed in short order that Simi is visiting in a determined effort to lose weight, and hopes that Claudia — a nutritionist and bestselling lifestyle author — will help her.
Hengle wastes no time in creating an unsettling, unwelcoming mood. Filipp is quiet and aloof, and shockingly rude to Simi when the adults aren’t around. Claudia seems friendly enough, but can’t quite suppress her annoyance at Simi’s sudden appearance in her home. It doesn’t stop there; Filipp sleeps with a knife, and has carved “bitch” and “cunt” into the bed frame that Simi will be sleeping on. For dinner, Claudia prepares an outlandishly elaborate meal even though she and Stefan are fasting for Lent. When Simi says that she didn’t realize Claudia was religious, Claudia coyly suggests that they’re “not really,” but are exploring their options. Queue the eerie music. After some cajoling, Claudia finally agrees to help Simi with her weight loss, which is to begin with an intense, week-long fast — no food whatsoever, Claudia demands, so that toxins can leave the body. Simi is surprised at the severity of Claudia’s plan, but decides that Claudia knows best and agrees to the program. Meanwhile, while out jogging, Simi comes across an elaborate wooden pyre, an ominous sign if there ever was one in this sort of film.
Family Dinner jumps into the deep end of strangeness and general unease so quickly that there’s no baseline of normality established, leading an incredulous viewer to wonder why Simi simply would not leave right away. One early bit of jarring violence is revealed to be a dream sequence, that most desperate of ploys to goose an audience while we wait for the other shoe to drop. Young Katlein is quite good as the quintessentially polite houseguest, trying valiantly not to make waves even as increasingly creepy events continue happening. Unfortunately she’s not given much depth; at one point she stumbles upon Claudia and Stefan having sex and seems a little too curious about it, but any potential psychosexual undertones aren’t explored any further. At different points, both Stefan and Filipp, acutely aware of her suffering while abstaining from food, tell Simi that she’s just fine the way she is and shouldn’t worry about losing weight. Simi firmly retorts that they shouldn’t tell her how to think about her body — a welcome assertion of her own autonomy, but again suggesting provocative undertones that aren’t ever mined further. Once the family finally sits down for a highly ritualized Easter dinner, it’s pretty clear what’s going on. Hengl eventually rallies to give genre fans a pretty gruesome ending, but it’s all a long, familiar journey to get there. There’s a mastery of time and ambiance to be found here, but no real understanding of how to modulate it. There’s a length of talent on display, but optimists will have to wait until next time.
Published as part of Tribeca Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 1.