With echoes of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster, Elina Sahlin’s Department of Detachment is, similarly, a surreal drama set within a fictionalised institution. Sahlin’s short is centred around Eloise who is lovesick and is brought to the Department of Detachment where she is encouraged to be cured of her heartbreak. What then ensues is a discussion between herself and the institution’s headmistress over the realities of this process and an exploration into what it means to truly experience loss. Sahlin joins DN in conversation to discuss these themes, how she shot the film in a single day on the grounds of a Swedish castle, and the Bergman-esque dialogue she sought to evoke in the process.
I’m curious to know where Department of Detachment began for you?
Department of Detachment is my solo directorial debut. The idea is sprung from the contrast between them who I refer to as ‘Tarzan’ lovers, you know, those who leave one love not before they grasped the next, and the grief obsessive ones. For the latter ones, they almost die in every heartbreak. Since the loss of love is not accepted as a sick-leave reason, despite the fact that a breakup is many people’s first and largest tragedy, they break apart and quite often isolate. We need a place where they can heal, just like an alcoholic would go to rehab. Hence, I invented this place and called it the Department of Detachment. Like society in general the headmistress thinks of one-way love as a disease sprung from childhood attachment issues.
How did you take that concept and apply it to the medium of film? And where did you shoot? It’s a pretty epic location!
I boiled it down to a five-page script which was shot during one day in the middle of Sweden. The location is a castle built 1883 as a summer resort for the owner of the long since discarded sawmills close to the Baltic Sea.
Did you draw from any particular cinematic reference points?
My references were clear to start with. I adore Bergmanesque dialogue. The critical voices have found this kind of writing over-worked or pretentious but I believe many intellectuals think in these kinds of sentences.
I am also a fan of Yorgos Lanthimos work, his weirdness… he invents places where I feel I belong.
I guess it’s that poetic grandeur that is often found in Bergman’s films too. How did your actors find performing that style of dialogue?
I was looking for a slightly enhanced absurdness in overall mellow acting and believe I found it together with the actors. I am also a fan of Yorgos Lanthimos’ work, his weirdness… he invents places where I feel I belong and from where I dare to make choices that feel like me, rather than right or pleasing. The licking part in my short is a tribute to this well of courage.
A key aspect of both Bergman and Lanthimos is usually how they present their environments. How did you tackle both the cinematography and set design in that castle?
I did the set design and props myself after a colourful palette where I matched carefully the venue with the props, etc. Most important in the becoming of this film was the close work with the DP Emil Klang, who understood and refined this vision fully, crafting creative shots and made editing a dream. Since the world in Department of Detachment is made up, we were both keen on a style reflecting that. I tell this story from a third person imperfect rather than first person present. It was a decision made in writing but transformed into images by Klang (shot on an Alexa mini LF and used Atlas Orion anamorphic lens). The sparse camera movement and blocking of the scenes are examples of this formation.
I tell this story from a third person imperfect rather than first person present.
And when it came to post-production, did you have a specific approach to the colouring and the off-kilter score?
In post we looked at Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. The colourist enhanced what we had to grand, but not overwhelming, colours. Meanwhile, the original music was composed, reflecting the protagonist’s inner struggle with recurrent offbeat violin strings. The overall parts of the sound design should be the protagonist’s experience of this estate, manifesting the weird tricks used to trick the steady stream of lovesick souls visiting and sometimes remains in and at this state.
Will you be returning to make another short anytime soon or potentially taking the leap to a feature?
I’m currently in the process of working on my first full length, a reckless coming of age set in rural Sweden, a part of the debutant program Moving Sweden curated by the Swedish Film Institute.