“DYS-” (Fantasia Movie Review)
The title of Maude Michaud’s DYS-, as defined in an opening text screen, is meant as a diminutive of “dysfunction,” of which there is certainly plenty on screen. But where the film’s central relationship is concerned, the movie could easily be called DIS-, for “dismissive” or “disassociate.”
A recent world premiere at Montreal’s Fantasia festival, where it won the Audience Award for Best Canadian Film, DYS- burrows deep into a relationship in the throes of horrific breakdown. Things have already gone sour between Eva (Shannon Lark) and Sam (Alex Goldrich), an upscale Montreal couple, when we first meet them, and even the news that Eva has landed a new job doesn’t dispel the fog of unhappiness hanging over their marriage. Meanwhile, the coughing of supporting characters and then onscreen news reports let us know that there’s a greater sickness spreading outside—a new strain of flu virus that becomes an extreme public health crisis and forces Eva and Sam to become prisoners in their apartment.
Though the viral pandemic ultimately has the effect on humans that such plagues often do in genre films, it’s really kind of a red herring in Michaud’s story. The point is not Eva and Sam surviving against a threat from outside, but the mental and eventual body horror that results from the two being trapped together inside. As the movie goes on, we learn more about the couple, how their professional and personal lives were entangled and, slowly but surely, just where the source of Eva’s sadness and madness lies. What’s clear from the beginning is that neither one of them is equipped to deal with the situation; as Eva sinks deeper into depression, Sam appears to be steadfastly in denial, his attempts to console her coming off more than vaguely like condescension. The mix of these two attitudes means that things are only going to get worse.
DYS- is obviously not for all tastes, and Michaud has no interest in grafting “sympathetic” traits onto her protagonists in the interest of making things more comfortable for the audience. What does interest her is an up-close-and-personal dissection of two psyches in decline, and the gradual, onion-like peeling of backstory (in which cult fave Lynn Lowry appears as Eva’s mother) to reveal how they got there. To her credit, the movie doesn’t feel like a gratuitous exercise; she has thought out her characters and her narrative to the point where, if you’re willing to go on the traumatic ride, it exerts a morbid fascination. Eva and Sam may not be two people you’d want to hang out with in real life, yet their situation and the questions it raises successfully pique the dark side of curiosity.
Crucial to our involvement with the couple are the performances of the two leads, who are up to the challenges DYS- poses them. Lark (once a FANGORIA “Spooksmodel”) ventures into uncharted territory here, and she and Goldrich play well off each other, even as their interactions could never be described as playing nice. What begins as emotional abuse escalates until the damage becomes physical as well, inflicted both upon each other as well as on themselves. It’s hard to watch at times, but DYS- passes the test of horror that ventures into transgressive territory: It keeps you wanting to watch, to follow its scenario to the bitter end, even as moments will have you desiring to hide your eyes.