It nothing else, Hungry Hearts is certainly a unique little movie amidst a sea of summer blockbusters clinging to predictably profitable formulas. Oddball writer/director Saverio Costanzo takes the typically warm concept of maternal love and transforms it into something twisted, possessive, and at times downright terrifying. It’s certainly an unexpected perspective and one that defines a film filled with the unexpected. For much of its running time, Hungry Hearts seems almost unclassifiable in how freely it leaps betweens genres and tones. At times, this storytelling approach can feel frustrating and even preposterous. Yet, whenever Costanzo seizes control of his weirdo genre experiment, it can feel impossible to rip your eyes from the screen.
The film stars Adam Driver and Alba Rohrwacher in what is essentially a two-hander paranoid, serio-comic, semi-horror flick. The first scene is executed in a single static shot and almost plays like strange squirmy short film in and of itself. They meet in a restaurant bathroom and are locked inside shortly after Driver releases the putrid results of food poisoning. The stench is unbearable and the situation awkward, yet through the confined space the pair develop a surprising attraction for each other. By the end they feel like a couple and a few fleeting following scenes captured in handheld intimacy takes their relationship from meet-gross to pregnancy. So far, so mumblecore. Then things get strange.
Pregnancy has an odd effect on Rohrwacher. She turns vegetarian, becomes insistent on a natural birth, and starts collecting odd books about children who are alien gifts from another planet. Once the baby is born, things get worse. Rohrwacher’s love for her child is strong, yet twisted. She spends all her time with the infant, refusing to take the child outside and feeding it only the flimsiest naturalist menu of her own mental design. This obviously takes its toll on Driver. He never stops loving his child or wife, but has no clue what to do when malnourishment starts stunting the baby’s growth and Rohrwacher becomes so lost that she won’t even allow shoes or cell phones into the apartment. He starts sneaking the baby out to a church just to feed it meat and contacting family, physicians, and lawyers desperately seeking advice for what he can possibly do to project his child from a psychotically overbearing mother. It’s not a story that can end well.
Costanzo’s vision is an odd one, yet not without precedent. His varied influences have just never appeared in the same place before. In the early going, he’s playing the film as awkward Manhattan romantic comedy. Then it transforms into cracked chamber drama with hints of melodrama. Then it turns into a Polanski-esque paranoid horror thriller, complete with that filmmaker’s distinctive use of disorienting wide angle lenses. The constant shifts in cinematic style serve to make the story even more unpredictable. For the bulk of the running time, it’s impossible for the audience to tell not just where things are going but what type of movie they are even watching. Costanzo deliberately plays on that discomfort, first for queasy laughs and then for dread (which also draws some queasy laughs). The resulting movie is a pressure cooker of unease that cleverly perverts gentle domestic images and themes into the stuff of skin-crawling horror. Sure, there are times when the realist bubble bursts for some ridiculous plot twists to keep the narrative engine running, yet overall it’s remarkable how much intensity and intimacy the filmmaker is able to maintain throughout.
Of course, the whole house of cards would fall without two leads capable of carrying such an oddball burden, but thankfully Costanzo cast his central couple perfectly. Driver and Rohrwacher claimed Best Actor and Actress trophies at the Venice film festival for good reason, they are both spectacular in very different ways. Rohrwacher and her unplaceable accent remain an enigma throughout. Her performance is mostly silent, without much of a hint of her inner motivation given to the audience. Yet she remains oddly empathetic and lovable while diving off the deep end into psychosis with no return. Driver on the other hand is left with most of the heavy lifting while Rohrwacher deepens her mystery. He has a tricky arc, falling from an awkwardly charming love interest into a broken disheveled mess and all while maintaining a clear love for the woman destroying his life. It’s a role that easily could have been defined by hair-pulling melodramatics, but Driver somehow keeps it all small, real, and relatable. He’s a loving husband in impossible circumstances and a tragic lead who will tear your guts out.
Given how strange and unsettling Hungry Hearts can feel by not conforming to any comforting genre form, it’s not a movie that demands outright adoration. It’s somehow too simple and too complicated for that. There are times when the movie feels like a calculated destruction of maternal bliss and other times when it plays like a hokey thriller. So, it’s impossible to ever pin down and somehow it feels like that’s exactly the audience reaction that Costanzo was hoping for. He’s either made a work of pure pulp for the art house crowd or a horror movie too pretentious for the gorehounds. It’s tough to say, but thankfully that ambiguity qualifies as strength here rather than weakness. This is exactly the movie that the filmmaker wanted to make and it’s one unlike any I’ve ever seen before in good ways and bad. That’s certainly an achievement and one well worth seeking out for those who crave something a little strange and unconventional.