“Seat in Shadow”
Henry Coombes, acclaimed artist-filmmaker has created Albert, an eccentric, aging painter who doubles as an unconventional, Jung-inspired psychotherapist. When Albert’s friend asks him to counsel her lethargic grandson Ben, who has been having ongoing boyfriend problems that are making him depressed, their subsequent therapy sessions reveal as much about Albert as they do about the troubled young man. This debut feature film is a witty, perceptive study of social mores, sexual excess and the bizarre, symbiotic relationship between doctor and patient; teacher and pupil; artist and muse.
Henry Coombes is an eccentric and original artist. He works in Scotland and has produced an eclectic body of work ranging through both painting and film. “Seat in a Shadow” is not only his first feature film, it is totally “unhinged” and goes against all of the trends of filmed representations of his city and very probably the queerest film ever made in Scotland. When he first moved to Scotland, Coombes was struck by the Bohemian subculture that has long flourished, somewhat underground there and he celebrates just that in the film. The film follows the relationship between a depressed young gay man who is sent by his grandmother to seek help at from an eccentric old homosexual hippie amateur painter and psychoanalyst, David Sillars, who co-wrote the script (and also steals the show).
Sillars says that he is ‘unconventional, but not unethical. This can be questioned when he takes all of his patient’s MDMA to protect him from the drug’s effect or tries to prevent him seeing his boyfriend because he’s jealous. This makes us wonder just who is being helper here. “Seat in Shadow” was filmed in a space of two weeks on a low budget, and these facts restrain it. It is too short and rough. A bit more length might have helped this.
The sessions between the therapist and morose, gay Ben (Jonathan Leslie) take place in Albert’s disheveled apartment which is dominated by a large cheese plant named Priscilla, and who Albert talks too when he has smoked a joint or two or taken ecstasy that he confiscated from Ben. Ben is dealing with a case of unrequited love with a local DJ who seems to want to break up with him after every time they have sex. Albert’s problem is that despite his lofty even though he comes across as an intellectual, he is jealous of his boyfriend. over-intellectualized statements, he is in fact really jealous of his boyfriend.
Much of the second half of the film takes place when they are all high on something other than just life, and here Coombs has the chance to let his imagination run wild with some very vivid dream-like sequences. The two leads make their acting debuts and sadly we see that clearly and while Sillars is enthusiastic in his role as the older man, Livingstone’s as Ben really is quite a poor showing.
We winder if Albert and his unconventional methods will just cause Ben a lot of unnecessary hassle that he’d rather avoid. The film looks at sexuality, communication, self-doubt, and more as it uses every scene to connect inner space and outer space cerebrally. The script is filled with fun lines and exchanges, and the camerawork moves between impressive imagery, such as a houseplant turned into a jungle terrain, or a jar of dirty water, being used to clean paintbrushes that we see depicted as something like a micro-universe in turmoil.
Other people appear throughout the movie, yes, but by and large that central relationship is what is important as Albert tries to help Ben and himself. The therapist is a work in progress who has the self-awareness to dissect and deal with his flaws and is more interesting than the patient. Whether he’s reacting to some cutting insults with a tired grin, or heading into a disco with a large plant to dance with, Albert is always the main reason to keep watching.
The film is funny and smart throughout even with the artificiality in the main performances and this is what causes the film not be as good as it could be. It’s hard to know if the performance problems come from Sillars, Leslie and the other actors or if director Coombes needs to work on his methods of instructing cast members.
Much like the character of Albert, this is an incisive, rough, flawed piece of work but it is very much worth seeing. This is an emotional look at artist and muse, a close-up look at alienation, and an uplifting expose of life and love of gay experience. That’s not to say that Coombs’ debut is a specifically “gay” film since it looks at the network of anxieties which plague one young man, but its ultimate message is about the complications of the human heart and mind.
Coombs wants to make something visually bold but really understands that without the characters or soul to back it, there’s nothing to pull us in. One of the profound pleasures of “Seat in Shadow” is getting to know its main characters and watching them move around each other yet remaining separated because of inexperience. There are moments when Ben comes across as petulant and moody and as an unattractive character so that we do not bond with him, but through careful honest dialogue with Albert, the film takes us into a series of sit-down chats. If anything, Coombs wants to give as much time to the muse as he does the artist and is not interested in backing up generalizations about millennials. He makes us sit down and understand that everything we do is caused by something done to us. Even Ben’s filthy-mouthed grandmother (Marcella McIntosh ) doesn’t feel like a bully and her own frustrations appearing to come from a place of love.
This is an intimately drawn psychodrama. Coombs’ choice of sets is perfect for the story, and his choice to really delve into the urban domesticity of Glasgow gives the film a cozy feel, whilst managing to slowly push us into fantasy. Albert’s mental health issues slip through as surreal visuals, some of them haunting and others just plain odd. Each visual unveils something and we go into quiet secret places from Albert’s apartment to a seedy club down a back alley. These places provide opportunities for human experiences, and all of them can be transformed by mood and activity. In the end Albert’s ability to transform his surroundings by using his imagination and a bit of work make us smile in the same way that Coombs’ charm and flare transform what could have been a depressingly dull drama into something much more fun.