Australian director Cate Shortland’s films trade in a kind of threatening beauty. Their surfaces are too immaculate, too exquisite, not to be masking messier, queasier ideas and impulses beneath: The reckless, harshly punished sexuality of a teenage girl in “Somersault,” or a youth’s dawning realization of her Nazi brainwashing in “Lore.” In “Berlin Syndrome,” Shortland’s equally, intensely elegant third feature, the ugly subversion of seductive exteriors is built into the film’s very narrative, as a heady, sexy holiday hook-up turns overnight into an abusive abduction — cuing a nightmarish game of sexual control and captivity, in which toxic masculinity calls the shots. Adapted from Melanie Joosten’s 2011 novel, this arresting, slightly over-extended conversation piece marks Shortland’s first foray into genre storytelling — though the film’s aloof tone and angular gender politics keep it in the arthouse domain.
That said, with sales already having proven brisk — a U.S. distribution deal was secured with Vertical Entertainment prior to its Sundance debut, with Netflix gaining streaming rights — “Berlin Syndrome” promises to be its director’s most widely seen effort to date, hinting at her potential facility with more commercial crossover projects. Between more trickily opaque stretches of character development, Shortland nails a handful of straight-up, nerve-shredding tension sequences, teasing a version of the film that might have tilted into full-bore horror.
As it is, the backpacker-abroad scenario that unfolds here is as coldly frightening as any grislier “Saw”-style version of events. Wandering aimlessly and alone through Berlin, young photographer Clare (Teresa Palmer, rather boldly underplaying) seems content to let adventure come to her, so when handsome, chatty local teacher Andi (Max Riemelt) takes an interest, a brief, hot dalliance with him strikes her as just the right degree of recklessness. After some romcom-style courting — ambling through public gardens, correcting his adorable English errors, mooning over Gustav Klimt paintings — their relationship takes a sensual step up. As in her previous films, Shortland conveys the sense of touch with quivering exactitude, as Germain McMicking’s camera lingers deliciously over entwined expanses of skin.
The film’s steamiest, most ravishingly lit love scene comes, however, with a brutal hangover: The next morning, Clare awakes alone in Andi’s apartment to find all doors and windows impenetrably bolted, and her cellphone stripped of its SIM card. When her captor returns, meanwhile, she finds his demeanor drastically changed, his affable gallantry giving way to violent, chilly mastery — though he appears psychologically torn between blandly playing house (“Do you like pesto?”) and more perversely exploiting her imprisonment. The glowingly shot physical intimacy stops here — Shortland and screenwriter Shaun Grant show thankfully little interest in sexing up this grim chamber drama from this point — but “Berlin Syndrome” still demonstrates