The new ASMR based short film from Peter Strickland is exactly what you would expect. Exactly what you would expect in that it is almost indescribably strange and uniquely compelling – as all things Strickland are.
With films like The Duke of Burgundy and In Fabric, Strickland has established himself as one of the most creative – and divisive – directors working today. For me, he is also one of the best, and this short is a great encapsulation of his brilliance. This is equally sinister and playful, alongside being equally thought provoking and beguiling. There is a core ambiguity, a sensation so central to Strickland’s work, but also clear themes expressed in concise and affecting ways. You may not know exactly what it is about, as a whole, but there are parts that speak with such clarity.
Strickland’s work on In Fabric led to a fascination with ASMR, the hypnotic chanting of washing machine repair manuals being a key part of the film – and somehow beautifully lyrical. However, a mastery of sound and its effects goes all the way back to Berberian Sound Studio. Like that, Cold Meridian is a film about sound, sound effects and what they do to people. The film oscillates – in beautiful black and white 16mm photography – between an ASMR video of a woman’s hair being washed; the viewer of that video sat at home; aggressive, naked contemporary dance, and a few more scenarios.
There is no conventional narrative here, it is experiential art film, but the pieces fit together beautifully. The hair washing video is marked with close-ups of soapy hair, a viewpoint that further dehumanises the action. The sound accompanying it is perfect, so pronounced and affecting – so wonderfully tactile. This is, of course, the effect throughout: sound is the connecting thread, especially tactile sound. We have pencils over paper, putting files into plastic wallets and the reciting of numbers in whispered tones (often directly addressing the viewer and questioning their role, which is key to the central themes). It is all mesmeric and transporting.
It is also framed as being creepy – or maybe unsettling is the better word. The film clearly understands the appeal of ASMR, as it is a work of ASMR itself, but it also implicitly questions it. The aforementioned dehumanising nature is accented by isolation and the obscure. However, it is the jump from the videos to the viewer of them which is the most effective motif. The in fiction viewer is almost affectless, she is just staring at her laptop entranced. It is a sinister visual making us question her behaviour, and thus intelligently reflecting on our own as we are one step further in this process. Watching the watcher further highlights the voyeurism of these videos and, with so little, makes a very profound statement about our relationship with what we watch.
The final part of the equation here is the nude interpretive dance. A naked pair aggressively throw their bodies around, colliding with each other and pulling away. There is an uncomfortable aggression here but a purposeful feeling one. It echoes Strickland’s earlier short GUO4 , both using out of context nudity alongside aggressive movement and the suggestion of violence. The relationship between the dancers is unclear, their intent is unclear, and again the viewer is left as a distanced voyeur, questioning their complicity and reflecting on our relationship with dehumanising art. The pair cavort for us and that seems to be the sole purpose, the uncomfortable connotations creating commentary on the discomfort of this power dynamic.
Like Strickland’s best work, this short washes over you and leaves you wrestling with analysis and deconstruction only afterwards. The joy is that the answers come and the ideas flow, but that in the moment the appeal is almost instinctive. Strickland taps into a dreamlike sense, affecting you with pure filmic language. This approach is not for all, and this short will alienate more than it delights, but it is impossible to deny Strickland’s skill and ingenuity.