Philippous: Talk to Me (2023)

Talk to Me, the debut film from Michael and Danny Philippou, starts in the middle of a labyrinthine house party. We follow an unnamed character through one room after another, and from one huddle to the next, before his trajectory ends with an act of shocking violence that bleeds back into the Adelaide nightsprawl, where the film proper unfolds. The vast majority of Talk to Me is shot under cover of darkness, taking us through a world of dankly textured, fluorescent lit, low key hangouts, from which characters and narrative only slowly emerge. For the first act of the film, a rhythm gradually builds around sudden explosive transitions, along with occasional bursts of grotesque and macabre imagery that reflect the Philippous background as YouTube stunt artists RackaRacka – both in the intensity of these isolated tableaux, and the digital murk that subsists between them, which is figured here as the connective tissue of suburban Adelaide: skate rinks, power lines, deserted arterial roads.  

As a result, the creepiness of Talk to Me’s premise lies partly in the way that it emerges, almost incidentally, from this sprawlmurk. Gradually, the narrative hones in on a collection of characters, who seem to exist mainly in transition to and from the gatherings that populate the nocturnal city – and to exist simultaneously in the various ways that these parties are shared and rehshared on social media. Early on, we catch a few glimpses of an unusual event taking place at some of these parties and gatherings, although it’s unclear whether the footage on the smart phone screens that flash in and out of the camera’s consciousness reflects something that has actually happened in real time and space, or has been manipulated and processed in some way. These “happenings” are never exactly presented as the centre of the film, or queried in a sustained way, but simply form one component of the broader illbience of the Philippous’ world, which is too corroded to have one point of focus.  

Finally, about twenty minutes in, this party continuum cascades into a basement hangout, where what appears to be a model hand is brought out and passed around the twenty or so people who are in attendance. We see this scene from the perspective of the younger brother of one of the partygoers, who is attending an adolescent party for the first time. His simultaneous overstimulation and disorientation pervades the scene as whole, which gives us no time to process or understand the hand before it is abruptly put into use. Rather than providing any semblance of a backstory or origin story, the Philippous only grant us access to this hand through the arcane rituals that have evolved around it. For it seems that holding this hand, and enjoining it to “talk to me,” can turn the user into a conduit for the dead, in a process that is (apparently) harmless so long as it doesn’t extend beyond a minute and a half.

Before we have any chance to consider the implications of this situation, the Philippous launch us into the action, as one teenager after another does indeed witness the dead, taking themselves to the very brink of the ninety-second threshold before returning to the living. Likewise, the younger character has no chance of comprehending this scenario before it is recorded and hypermediated by everyone around him – or before the hand is thrust into his own hand, and he is encouraged to give it a go. Up until this point Talk to Me has is almost a horror-comedy – not exactly because it’s funny per se, but because the jouissance of the hand, as a party trick, gathers every other affect up into its ebullient wake. By the time the younger character had locked hands with it, I could barely remember when I had learned that this was in fact an embalmed hand encased in concrete, that it had once belonged to a psychic, and that it was scrawled with different languages. Instead, the Philippous slip a pill into their audience’s mouth and only then deign to reveal its providence, meaning and danger, by which stage its discombulatingly destructive symptoms have started to take hold.  

In other words, Talk to Me takes on one of the perennial preoccupations of teen horror – connectivity – and updates it for our current social media moment. As an emblem of this connectivity, the hand recalls the urban legends and networked fixations of the neo-slasher films of the 90s, as the current owner blithely explains that he got it from a friend, who in turn got it from a friend. What makes the Philippous’ vision unique is the way they converge social media addiction and drug use into the hand, which temporarily turns the user into a site of hallucinatory hypermediation – “It felt like I was glowing, that I could feel and see and hear everything” – that is even more sublime amidst the dank suburban tissue of outer Adelaide. Holding the hand becomes the latest iteration in calculated social media risk, a way of testing your limits on social media to avoid being shamed (or worse, completely ignored) on social media. For an older generation, public speaking was scarier than death, but here public humiliation, or public oblivion, has taken on that fear. To hold the hand is to engage with social media as both an incentive to suicide and as a quasi-suicidal act of brinksmanship.  

Hence the second half of Talk to Me, which both shifts into more conventional horror and moves away from the hand in favour of a grief narrative that turns precisely on the question of whether the mother of one of the teenagers committed suicide. While this effort to expand the film into the world beyond the hand leads to some particularly eerie scenes, several of them involving Miranda Otto in a bit part as a victim’s mother, it also takes us away from the most distinctive part of Talk to Me: those scenes in which the hand emerges subliminally from the teenagers’ apprehension of it, at the very instant at which they attempt to collectively mediate it. In these scenes, horror is embedded in the dank architecture of both suburbia and social media in a way that is truly uncanny and truly Australian, forming a kind of spiritual sequel to the pre-NBN disconnectivity of inner Adelaide enacted in The Babadook. By the time we return to more conventional horror, and the extravagant sweep of the opening scenes has been boiled down to one or two key relationships Talk to Me feels like an extraordinary short film that hasn’t quite made the transition to a feature length statement. Yet that sense of incompletion also makes those opening evocations of Adelaide, feel even stranger, even more arcane, even more indebted to a network we can’t quite perceive completely or coherently.

About Billy Stevenson (930 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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