The feature debut of writer/director David Marmor, 1BR (aka Apartment 1BR) opens with a montage of generic shots to establish that we are in Los Angeles, beneath the Hollywood sign, and then the camera moves up to the front door of a particular apartment complex, passes people chatting and collecting mail in the lobby, and then weaves through others in the courtyard around the pool. These neighbours, laughing, eating together and helping each other, represent an idyllic vision of community values, with only the slow motion of the footage, and a slightly discordant note in Ronen Landa’s otherwise lyrical score, to suggest, beneath all the wide smiles, happy faces and welcoming waves to camera, something more brittle and menacing.
Aspiring fashion designer Sarah (Nicole Brydon Bloom) comes to Asilo del Mar apartments for an ‘open house’ viewing of the recently vacated Room 209. A newcomer to LA, with no friends or relatives there, she is working as an office temp, and “trying to start a new life”. There is a ‘no pets’ rule, so when she gets the lease she has to sneak in her cat Giles. Everyone there is extremely friendly and helpful, from manager Jerry (Taylor Nichols) and his wife Janice (Naomi Grossman) to dotty old Miss Edie Stanhope (Susan Davis). Only Lester (Clayton Hoff) is creepy – or, as Edie insists, ‘just sad’, having recently lost his wife to cancer. The residents all look out for each other, like family – which for Sarah, a “daddy’s girl” who has issues with her real family, is a perfect set-up and substitute to which she can transfer her damaged sense of belonging. There is even a ‘hot neighbour guy’ in Room 212, Brian (Giles Matthey), who had helped Sarah win the apartment and has definitely caught her eye.
Yet at night strange metallic sounds leak through the walls, keeping Sarah awake – and soon she is getting threatening hate mail slipped under the door about her cat. Unsure who her anonymous correspendent is, Sarah starts seeing a more sinister side to Asilo del Mar. “Break the fucking lease,” suggests her work colleague Lisa (Celeste Sully), whose individualistic philosophy is the rather un-communitarian “It’s my fucking life”. Too late, though – for once you have joined the good people of Asilo del Mar(mor), it is very hard to leave.
1BR shows its trump card early: this is to be a paranoid apartment thriller, like Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) or The Tenant (1976). The theme is communal living, in all its attractions, but also in all its horrors: a nightmare of carefully conditioned social conformity, where fitting in comes with obvious rewards, but any deviation from prescribed conduct (the residents’ rules) brings punishment and ostracism. Sarah’s fragile resistance and desperate efforts to escape make for intense, often hallucinatory suspense – but at heart this is a broader allegory about the fascism that so readily underlies any utopia. Anyone who has ever judged, or felt judged by, their neighbours, their fellow countrymen, their congregation or their online community will recognise themselves in Asilo del Mar – an ‘asylum’ that is simultaneously a place of refuge and of madness. For Marmor’s film stages the apartment building simultaneously as social ideal and police state – a microcosm of the contradictions in any collective grouping. It’s like Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise (2015), only in America and on a smaller scale. We are all, of course, social beings by nature, and the hierarchical, essentially patriarchal trap that the film constructs is where, like it or not, we all live.
© Anton Bitel