New Strains (2023) Rotterdam Film Festival 2023

January 28th, 2023
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dirs: Artemis Shaw, Prashanth Kamalakanthan | US Drama 78′

“He flashed me as a child; it was the first non-close family dick I saw”. says Kallia of her uncle in the opening scene of this offbeat handmade movie, with its ad-libbing script peppered with “like” before every other word. Shot on an Hi8 camcorder, its grainy VHS ‘warts and all’ footage certainly captures the zeitgeist, a fractious couple –  Kallia and her partner Ram (both directing, post lockdown) – holed up in a New York flat lent to them by said uncle during the pandemic of 2020.

As the two them wise up to the life-threatening situation engulfing them, obsessive cleaning of every single object and surface area is the order of the day in the era came to be known as the “new normal”.  

Some may find New Strains ‘de trop’ in its gruesomely graphic detail. Expect to see lavatory functions, sexual functions – and malfunctions – becoming central to the narrative, for lack of anything more interesting, as the two are reduced to kids watching YouTube and fiddling endlessly with gadgetry in their state of infantilism induced by the pandemic.

Not entirely confined to the spacious apartment, Kallia does make it outdoors where everyone she encounters is masked up to the hilt, including a neighbour, her ex, who tries to hit on her again hoping for some action on his roof terrace. Everywhere is temporarily closed or cordoned off in reflection of that ghastly time in early 2020, and beyond. 

At one point Kallia confesses – bizarrely – to having spent the morning at a Fra Angelico exhibition, while TV reports talk of a generalised state of cognitive decline brought on by the wide-scale epidemic. Later Kallia ‘meets’ girlfriends to exercise with a ‘group cardio burn’ session online, with Ram convinced he’s finally got the lurgy.

Being in lockdown offered ample opportunity for self improvement, and for falling out with each other. But for some reason, Kallia and her beau only embrace the latter. The Covid crisis sees them reduced to the lowest common denominator in an unintentional comic performance that echoes a looser and more lewd version of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in The Odd Couple: she the moody anxious type, he the more avuncular, obliging artist.

New Strains amounts to a series of random episodes rather than a story with a recognised narrative arc. Their banter is amusing for a while but then grows tiresome – even with the film’s short running time – as we are forced to endure the inanities, and reflect back on a time that, for many, was a living nightmare from hell. The only redemption was the glorious spring weather, and the sound of silence – apart from birdsong. MT



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