Much of what transpires in Aloft washes over you like a hypnotic dream, with peril and anguish looming at the corners, ever ready to flood the delicate drama at the core of director Claudia Llosa’s film. It’s more a sensual experience than a narrative, and while the dystopian prophecy boasts a concrete plot—or two—Llosa has loftier ambitions. Think The Tree of Life or Life of Pi, but Llosa’s film never quite spreads its wings.
Set somewhere in a slightly alternative reality, in the near future, in a place that’s rooted very much in the here and now, Aloft centers on a French journalist (Melanie Laurent) who’s making a documentary about a reclusive female faith healer living in a remote compound on a frozen arctic lake. She connects with a troubled falconer (Cillian Murphy) with ties to the much sought one, who can harness the power of nature to cure terminal illnesses. Given that such skills in a traditional office park might result in long lines and traffic headaches, the tough-to-reach outpost somewhat makes sense—though, if it’s such a bitch to get to, might not the dying and the needy expire long before arriving at the doorstep of salvation?
In a separate spindle, some 20 years earlier, a single mother (an alluring Jennifer Connelly sporting a rat tail) toils on a pig farm raising two boys. The youngest is sick and without much prospect, while the older, through reckless abandon, constantly puts his feeble younger sibling at risk (joyriding in a pickup truck on thin ice). Connelly’s Nana, desperate, turns to a New Age-y sect, where the head, considered a drunkard and a charlatan by nonbelievers, is rumored to remedy those whose doctors have closed the book on.
Like the delicate twigs and twine in the healing constructs hanging between the forest’s trees, the interweaving between the two threads is laid with overt purpose—however, not much else is. A raw, enigmatic aesthetic imbues cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc’s crisp, ethereal render of the great white North, but as the film tightens its broad thematic net, there’s a sudden, unsavory triteness. The result is a push and pull on the viewer’s sensibilities.
Llosa, who hails from Peru and makes her first English language production here, has long been focused on the cult of motherhood and the sorority of the oppressed;Madeinusa (2006) told the tale of a girl coming of age in a remote village while The Milk of Sorrow (2009) connected the plights of sexually abused women. Her aim is noble, but the elements of storytelling, and the motif and origin of emotional turmoil, should not be left to hang in the air as wispy vagaries.
Llosa’s best asset, beyond Bolduc’s sure eye, is her sharp cast. Connelly works effusively under the heavy yoke, harnessing restrained resentment with grit and earnestness, as do Laurent and Murphy, their luminous blue eyes revealing inner vulnerabilities while masking alternative agendas. There’s a certain poetic bravado to the trio’s collective power of rue, but to what end? With the stakes so high, so early, the degree of difficulty further handicaps a story leaden with ideas and in search of a form. Ultimately, Aloft is an awkward body in need of growth and development.