Credit: Heretic
by Ryan Akler-Bishop Featured Film

Inside — Vasilis Katsoupis [Berlinale ’23 Review]

February 24, 2023

“Art is for keeps,” the protagonist of Vasilis Katsoupis’ Inside proclaims, just shortly before finding himself condemned to an art-laden torture chamber. Played by Willem Dafoe, Nemo is a hardened art thief who’s Robinson Crusoe’d himself inside a high-tech, high-security apartment after a bad job. The apartment, adorned with posh artwork, becomes a domestic prison ravaged by a dysfunctional thermostat which oscillates between extreme heat and cold. Nemo is cut off from the world and left with limited inventory, and Inside chronicles the minutiae of his survival, reveling in the grotesqueness of his captivity; his hauntingly dehydrated urine fills a toilet bowl, several months’ shits amass a mountainous heap, and his teeth slowly rot yellow. All action is rooted in the pursuit of fundamental human needs: food, water, heating, cooling. The sterile landscape of the apartment becomes fraught with ordinary treacheries, and all the while, Nemo labors toward an increasingly implausible dream of escape.

Dafoe’s casting is perfect. Outside of recent Abel Ferrara films (Pasolini, Tommaso, and Siberia), Dafoe’s career of late has been predominantly relegated to supporting roles or as a familiar face in an ensemble. Katsoupis undoes this expectation, leaving Dafoe as almost the only presence in the film. The director treats Dafoe’s face, with its dramatic creases and gapped teeth, as a first-rate canvas — the camera is often thrust into intimate proximity with Nemo as he undergoes absolute torment. In one tight close-up from the POV of a freezer, Dafoe’s face peers forward, fiendishly scraping at the rim of the freezer for any hydrating ice remnant. He commits fully to absolute desperation, yet his anguish isn’t confined to his face; this is a full-body performance. With sparse dialogue, the brunt of labor rests on Dafoe’s physicality. As the film progresses, Nemo becomes increasingly ill, burdened with a full narrative’s worth of ailments. Dafoe has a lot of fun embodying the displeasure, hobbling through a perpetual-limit experience. By the end of the movie, he’s doubled-over chanting in a gruff, Tom Waitsian bellow.

Inside benefits from a clear-headed spatial orientation. Shot in sequence, the movie maintains an impressive continuity, as all the debris from each of Nemo’s actions accumulate evidence strewn across the apartment — each action leaves a souvenir. As a central project, Nemo fashions a hodgepodge ladder out of various furniture pieces, reaching upwards toward the skylight: the most feasible means of escape. Throughout Inside, the makeshift ladder towers like a Dadaist sculpture; it becomes a centerpiece in an apartment full of art pieces.

Katsoupis also minimizes the visibility of the exterior world. For most of the film, the outside cityscape is presented as an anonymous expanse of adjacent high-rises. At night, it becomes distant, turquoise bokeh. Even the helicopter which deposits Nemo at the site of his failed heist stays off-screen, simulated through the sound of chopper blades. The film also gives no insight into Nemo’s backstory, and it’s this limited scope, confining us inside with Nemo, as much as it’s its bounded physical space that gives the film its palpable claustrophobia. In its final act, however, Inside strains a bit as it gravitates away from its central conceit, reaching for unnecessary aesthetic variations — hallucinatory inserts only counteract the effective claustrophobia. This results in a movie marred by an insecurity with its own minimalism. Still, despite such ill-advised flourishes, at its best Inside is a film about acts of desperation, mostly content to dwell on a man in a room without embellishment.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 8.