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Lonely Hearts [Dennis Cahlo, USA, 2019]

Lonely Hearts begins with the shot of a mirror and the words ‘YOU ARE ENOUGH’ scrawled upon it in lipstick. In the same singular shot, the camera slowly tracks through the rooms of an apartment as we hear the voiceover of a self-help tape offering words of encouragement, asking the central question: “what is the truth when we look in the mirror?” The camera stops, finding a woman dressed in a white jumpsuit sitting on her bed with her back us, listening to the tape on large headphones. She stands up, walking out of shot as the film’s title card appears in mustard-yellow, upper-case lettering.

It is a distinctive, unsettling and, frankly, brilliant opening shot that sets the tone for the strangeness of events to follow. The slightly washed out and light pastel grading of the image is immediately at odds with the deliberately slow, creeping camera movement, creating an ominous and fragile atmosphere filled with tension and intrigue.

What becomes apparent very quickly is that this woman is lonely, her emotional reality crumbling as she feeds her cat in the bathroom lying down next to it, or works from home with documents strewn across a dining table decorated with an array of chewy, sugary confectionery, including a box of a fruit loop cereal called ‘Loki-O’s’ (an item which we see repeatedly throughout the film) who’s mascot is an anthropomorphic cat with a maniacal grin.

Bethany Watson as Celeste

She decides to call an anonymous helpline for somebody with whom to talk, her guarded and evasive conversation further revealing her troubled state of mind. Eventually, she shifts her attention to the eponymous online dating service. The following day she receives a response, accepts the invitation and, preparing herself in the bathroom mirror, wipes away the previous lipstick inscription with a triangular occult symbol, as the scratchy violin soundtrack reveals the horror direction the story is about to take.

It is here that things get a little sticky, not so much for the character but for the film itself. As Celeste comes face-to-face with her suitor we very quickly realise that the date is not who they seem to be, but what we get is not the moment of horror that all the signifiers would suggest, but a rather overextended comedy punchline that, unfortunately, undermines all of the great tension and artistry that precedes it.

Bethany Watson’s performance is worthy of note, understated and full of mystery, and the film works best in the moments where she is alone and housebound, with the other interactive agents unseen. But, as more characters appear, the action and dialogue, unfortunately, become a bit silly and exhaustive, the beautifully languid choreography of the camera (directed wonderfully by Dennis Cahlo) now an afterthought as it grinds to a featureless stasis.

Lonely Hearts is certainly a film of two halves, mirroring Celeste’s bipolar tendencies, and deals with the theme of duality in interesting and captivating ways, but the short runs out of steam towards its conclusion, feeling closer to a web sketch than the art-house horror film that it clearly should have been.


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