The text that opens The Wanting Mare tells of the city of Whithren, which once a year exports wild horses, hunted down on its outskirts, to a perpetually wintry city across the sea on the northern continent of Levithen. These opposed cities, and the world of Anmaere that contains them, are spaces of pure invention, promising from the outset a fantasy. In a sense, that is what writer/director Nicholas Ashe Bateman delivers – indeed his film’s very first line is itself a kind of fairytale introduction (“There was a time of the world before, and the dream is what’s left”), told by a mother to her newborn. Yet what will strike viewers almost at once is just how realistic this legendary place is. Whithren is not some mythic Middle Earth of monsters and magic, but a relatively undistinguished modern coastal city and its environs, full of the cars, light bulbs, stereos, cargo ships, telephones and guns that all mark a place and period not so very different from our own. And there is a real, lived-in grit to it, as characters sweat and swagger through spaces of rendered concrete, dust and dilapidation. This is the kind of down-at-heel, dead-end environment from which fantasy normally offers a refuge.
There is a double-paradox at work here: for as real as all these locations may look, they are, almost entirely, a fabrication, added digitally by Bateman in post-production to scenes that the performers acted out before blue screens in parking lots, Airbnb rooms and a rented warehouse. So the world of The Wanting Mare is as constructed as the virtual environments in, say, Kerry Conran’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Kazuaki Kiriya’s Casshern and Enki Bilal’s Immortal (all 2004), or as the weightless CG-scapes of a modern studio space opera – except that unlike the super-stylised artifice of those films, Bateman’s composited world is designed to appear as drably grounded as possible.
While DP David A. Ross’ cinematographic visions vary considerably throughout the film (and also accommodates a large range of moody lighting conditions), his signature is one particular type of shot in which a character is framed wide in the centre of an engulfing background – yet here, it is always the background locations more than the characters who anchor what we are seeing to the realms of the plausible. Place here is strangely solid (no matter how much it might be manufactured by computer), whereas the personae who inhabit that place are presented impressionistically as changeable, flighty and transient – not least because the film covers a span of multiple generations, with radical leaps in time marked by intertitles that read, for example, ’34 years later’, and with people whom we first see as infants later appearing in adult form (or even forms) played by different actors.
Besides bricks and mortar, what lends Whithren its coherence and unsettles its stasis is a dream of a different past, and a hope for a different future. The same dream is experienced every night by 20-year-old Moira (Jordan Monaghan), as it was by her mother and her grandmother – a dream that is also a collective memory of a vaguely defined prelapsarian life, of ideals and archetypes, which Moira can no less help preserving than the tapes of her late mother’s singing performances that she plays every night. Moira’s birthright is a dream of longing and nostalgia, dressed in present disappointment and dread. Conversely, hope for the future and for change is instantiated in the tickets that allow their holder passage aboard the yearly transport ships to Levithen – yet these tickets are “a rare commodity”, and as they invite deception, theft, violence, betrayal and murder, they are the McGuffin that propels such plot as there is in The Wanting Mare. Of course it is a ticket which also conventionally provides the viewer with passage into the rarefied fictions of cinema – even if we can never be sure where exactly our ticket will take us.
Moira is listening to a recording of her mother when she hears a gunshot, and rescues 25-year-old Lawrence (Bateman) from his attempted heist of a ticket. Moira tends Lawrence’s wound, and offers him shelter and her bed – but makes it clear that in return she would like a ticket for herself. Instead, Lawrence brings her a foundling baby. Decades later, Eirah (Yasamin Keshtkar) meets a man with a ticket. Hadeon (Edmond Coffie) imagines that in doing right by Eirah he can redeem himself – but in this world, dreams are dashed, hopes are frustrated, and as Lawrence tells Moira, distant Levithen is “just another place”.
So abstract and elusive are the interconnections between these characters, each caught in their fixed cycles of love and loss, that it is left to the film’s polysemic title to fill in the interpretative gaps. The ‘mare’ captures all at once the wild horses (or mares) that are annually conveyed from this land to the next (one of which also links Eirah to Hadeon), the long line of mothers (or, in French, mères) who pass down their shared dream of times past, the capacity of that dream to ‘burn’ (like a nightmare), and the sea (or, in German, Meer) that opens and limits these characters’ horizons. Meanwhile the ‘wanting’ in the title is the desire – for another person or place – that drives everyone in the film. Yet as no one’s hopes are truly realised, and the best that anyone ever gets is fleeting and different from what was planned, here even desire itself ultimately falls short and is found, precisely, wanting.
Bateman may mount a delicate otherworldly drama across time and space, but in his brand of fantasy, wish fulfilment is replaced by something altogether more achingly, beautifully melancholic, as happiness is made always to reside far beyond – in another place, in a dream, or in death.
© Anton Bitel