(Croatia 2020; Dir: Sara Grgurić)

In the Woods

Pandemic Romance

review by Sabrina Vetter

In the Woods

length: 17

year of production: 2020

country of production: Croatia

director: Sara Grgurić

production: Mihael Šandro, Sara Grgurić, Suzana Erbežnik

director of photography: Frane Pamić

editing: Marko Klajić

sound: Dino Ljuban

cast: Lana Meniga, Josip Ledina

festivals: Zagreb Film Festival 2020, Encounters Film Festival 2021, San Sebastian International Film Festival 2021,

© images: 'In the Woods' (Sara Grgurić)

With ‘In the Woods’, Croatian director Sara Grgurić explores romance (or rather the end of it) in times of the pandemic. During lockdown, Saša and Filip head to Gorski Kotar. What looks like a couple’s weekend in search of calmth and relaxation in the idyllic atmosphere of the Croatian mountain region soon turns sour as it becomes clear that Saša is disillusioned with her current relationship: whatever feelings she has left for Filip are rather negative. Filip, on the contrary, is oblivious to the state of his partner. While he looks forward to a joint weekend of bike rides, swimming in the lake and lounging in the vacation home’s garden, Saša’s frustrations float to the surface more and more so.

Grgurić succeeds in setting up the mood for this faux romantic holiday through a great production design. Filmed on 16mm, the sepia filters, mustard-colored shirts and production design choices of in-door settings give the impression that the film could very much be set in the 1970s and exist alongside French New Wave films by the likes of Jacques Rivette’s ‘Celine and Julie Go Boating’ (1974) and Claude Chabrol’s ‘The Twist’ (1976) — if it weren’t for the protective face masks the two main characters wear in their very first scene. The set design inspired by 70s chic (especially the couple’s vacation home is memorable in this regard, as its furniture and decor are seemingly stuck in time) and the realities of living in times of the Covid-19 pandemic seem at odds, but the director makes it work. This visual look mixed with the actual time period it is set in, hints at how time has lost all its meaning during lockdown. Additionally, this disparity has a sort of uncomfortable nature, which perfectly fits the aromantic story the film is portraying.

At the center of the short film is Saša and Filip’s crumbling bond as a couple, which status is so differently perceived by each individually. There is another disparity happening here: on the one hand, in the dissonance of Filip’s expectations of this getaway which allows to leave the psychological stress caused by lockdowns and social distancing behind, all the while Saša gets more and more annoyed with the situation by the second; on the other, how the setting’s atmosphere is almost in direct contrast to the emotions evoked by the narrative. The peaceful landscape — made up of panorama shots of mountains, forests and lakes — stands in for a state of calmness, sunny weather provides a warm summer feeling and the absence of masses of people in the remote countryside make sure that the general backdrop invites viewers to take a pause. In another context, all of this offers itself as the perfect place for a romantic story.

However, this first impression soon crumbles as the audience becomes more and more aware of Saša’s uncomfortability in the relationship. The usual things a trip to the countryside invites to do, she prefers to do on her own in lieu of shared experiences. Ultimately, ‘In the Woods’ is not about romance or holidays, about the struggle that comes with ending things and in this case: relationships. Saša’s means of communication, an essential aspect to any relationship, has broken down on her part: even though she is done with Filip, she fails to find the words to express her emotions. Rather she stays silent and hopes that her selfish actions will do the talking. Passive-aggressive is the watchword here. In another layer to the opposites the film lives off and thrives on: Filip appears to be blind to his girlfriend’s discomfort throughout.

Covid-19 has amplified the exhausting nature of relations of whatever form, including the relationship with our own selves. Besides more (intense) time spans spent with certain people, lockdowns also meant spending more time with one’s own thoughts. For Saša this means to deal with her relationship under a different reality, see it anew and realize that she is void of feelings for the person she once loved so much. This short film grants us an insight into this state of mind without much dialogue, tasking its compelling lead actress with transporting the character’s emotions of unhappiness and annoyance merely by glances alone.

Besides the literal story it is telling, Grgurić’s work also invites the audience to think about the relevance to the real world of its on-screen depictions. By representing the microcosm of one couple, the director shines a light on more universal struggles of life during the pandemic: everything is chaos, what was once taken for granted turned upside down completely and our perception of time and people appears crooked. Similarly as to Saša’s shifted feelings towards her boyfriend, relationships all around us have significantly changed: family relations are in turmoil due to different ideas of science and vaccinations, friendships are tested by how each person is able or willing to adapt to the circumstances of social distancing and lovers are challenged by the extended amounts of time people had to all of sudden spent together within the privacy of their homes — often in unfamiliar or cramped living circumstances. ‘In the Woods’ succesfully shows us how nothing will ever be the same after the Covid19-pandemic: everything is changed, forever.