“I’d love it if my boyfriend tried to kill himself because I’d died,” declares 19-year-old Holly (Abigail Hardingham).
“But he didn’t kill himself, did he?” replies one of her workmates. “He’s back here stacking shelves on minimum wage.”
“Alright but – imagine being fucked by someone that intense.”
This exchange, near the beginning of Nina Forever, sets the tone for a film whose gothic romance is always being offset and anchored by the mundanity of everyday, contemporary existence. Holly may be talking about love and death, but art’s two greatest preoccupations are here utterly banalised by the setting of this conversation: a supermarket carpark in Sutton. Likewise, when not long afterwards Holly speaks for the first time with the object of her Liebestod-laden reveries, she mistakes for a mere ‘orange’ the blood-hued pomegranate (that great classical symbol of death and rebirth) which she and Rob (Cian Barry) share together in the supermarket’s storeroom (while listening on Rob’s headphones to an indie song about resurrection). Brothers in writing and directing as much as in blood, Ben and Chris Blaine show a real talent for teasing the grandest themes out of the dullest settings, and introducing the least probable of intruders to the most intimate of moments.
Ever since his long-term girlfriend Nina (Fiona O’Shaughnessy) died in a car accident, things have stopped adding up for mathematician Rob. He has recently crashed his own motorbike in what was either a suicide attempt or a cry for help. He spends his days at work shuffling about the supermarket aisles like a zombie, his nights at home surrounded by reminders of the deceased, and his weekends at dreary lunches with Nina’s equally lost parents Dan (David Troughton) and Sally (Elizabeth Elvin). Drawn to Rob’s grief, pain and sorrow like a moth to a flame, Holly decides to fill the dark void in his life with herself, whether hoping to fix his damage, or perhaps just to experience his intensity. The two fall into bed together, only to find themselves sharing erotic space with a third wheel: Nina herself, returned from the dead as the bloody, broken embodiment of unresolved emotions that still haunt her one-time boyfriend. So begins a strange, psychologised ménage à trois in which Rob and Holly explore their feelings towards both each other and the memento mori that comes insistently between them.
“Basically you’re Florence Nightingale job-sharing with Linda Lovelace,” Nina informs Holly. Dead-eyed and grotesquely angular, but also wittily acerbic and unexpectedly physical, Nina is not a ghost of the ethereal variety so often seen in cinema, nor particularly frightening, but an ever-naked flesh-and-blood character stuck in the moments of her death, and resentful of both her own return and her replacement by another. Like the revenants in Anthony Minghella’s Truly Madly Deeply (1990) and Jeff Baena’s Life After Beth (2014), Nina becomes, for all her uncannily miraculous impossibility, also an awkward, undeniably irritating presence in reality, and both Rob and Holly’s struggle to honour the ‘ex ex’ while eradicating her persistent, nagging memory forms the substance of the film’s drama. It is a cliché that the grieving must eventually learn to move on (as Nina herself puts it, “Don’t even mention the word closure”), but what makes Nina Forever a more interesting and mature work is the way it shows Holly recognising in Nina not just someone else’s fixed and fixated past, but also her own living-dead future.
Named for the permanent tattoo that Rob – and eventually Holly too – have inked into their backs for all subsequent lovers to see, Nina Forever is concerned with the scars (some healing, some not) that we notch up as marks of our historical, formative experience, and end up having to share with others. An adult ghost story that improbably merges the auto-erotic fetishism of Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) and the reintegrative triangulations of Tsukamoto’s Vital (2004) into the seasonal suburbia of South London, the Blaine brothers’ film is not only impossible to confine to a single genre (romance? comedy? horror?), but also cut up on the editing slab to elide the differences between then and now, accident and aftermath. This is smart, sexy filmmaking, full of surprises and a real emotional intelligence to match all the more otherworldly material. After all, it is one thing to show characters having to keep sleeping with the metaphorical corpse of their lost love – but here we also see them constantly having to clean up the stained sheets afterwards. There may be an afterlife, but life itself must still somehow go on.
© Anton Bitel