Unsettlingly beautiful: Mother Melancholia, a film by Samantha Shay

May 11, 2022

Inspired by the similarly titled concept album around the end of the world as we know it by Icelandic songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Sóley, Samantha Shay’s Mother Melancholia is a hauntingly beautiful dance film. The drone-filled, eerie haunted soundscapes combine perfectly with the choreography, locations and often shadowy camerawork to create the feeling of dark drama: Nordic Noir at its best, come to dance.

The 28-minute film is an intimate, multi-layered portrait of four women; an unsettling meditation on life and the difficulty of being of this world. Co-commissioned by Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, it is filled with scenes that suggest depression and illusion, angst and fear, loneliness and uncertainty, but also love. Filmed at Hotel Holt, The National Gallery of Iceland, National Theatre of Iceland, and most evocatively outdoors using the vast open landscape and black, rocky shore of the Sky Lagoon.

Still from Mother Melancholia by Samantha Shay
Director of Photography Victoria Sendra

We first see Chalia La Tour. Her gown and veil are white, she wears pearls and a red rose tiara. It looks like she’s ready for a wedding. Her words emphasise being safe. Yet her demeanour suggests quite the opposite. As with the other performers, her eyes stare out from the screen. It feels like they are a tunnel into the soul. Yet, while there is clearly great depth in the characters, we are never shown clearly exactly what is hidden.

Director of photography Victoria Sendra’s camera constantly flits between locations and dancers. Indoors we find former Tantzheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch dancer Breanna O’Mara, now working with Dmitris Papaiouannou, in a white corset. Shifting in front of a mirror, this way and that, collapsing at times like a rag doll, each movement is heavy with meaning and emotion. There’s a sense of her remembering, perhaps not willingly, moments from an unhappy past.

The moments continue to twist and bend around one another. Sometimes the camera soars high, showing the dancers as minute figures in this strange universe. Sometimes it gets really close in.

Still from Mother Melancholia by Samantha Shay
Director of Photography Victoria Sendra

Every look, every subtle gesture, every second of the film has meaning. Shay, the film’s director and editor, and Barbara Kaufmann often appear together. As one lays a head on the other’s shoulder, there is clearly a relationship, but again it’s left for the viewer to decipher.

Mother Melancholia closes by taking us underwater, the rippling surface clearly visible above, the sunlight glinting off a circular mirror below. The scene at first reminds one of mermaids, or rather darker, is it sirens waiting to lure seafarers to a watery end?

Whatever, Mother Melancholia is a visually stunning film, with four outstanding actor-dancers. It grabs you immediately and doesn’t let go even for a second.

Mother Melancholia is being shown as part of the Under Construction Festival and in partnership with Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. It’s available, pay what you can, until May 15, 2022 at vimeo.com/samanthashay. All funds raised are going towards aiding the Ukrainian people.