As far as films about grief go, this darkly fantastical time-loop story is surely one of cinema’s most unusual. Following a bereavement, on-the-skids couple Tobias and Elin go on a camping trip only to be captured and killed by a roving band of pitiless loons who look like a sinister circus troupe from a fairytale long gone sour. Tobias wakes up the next morning and swears it was a dream but when the senseless violence occurs again (and again), he is convinced otherwise.
Watching Koko-di Koko-da (2019) is to spend 90 minutes in the mind of Swedish director Johannes Nyholm – and it is not a terribly pleasant place to be. Many time-loop flicks feature punchline cuts that start the loop anew, sight-gags that make for fun ways to tick over into the next lifecycle. The audience gets nothing so merciful here. Nyholm’s movie doesn’t have the devil-may-care tone of Happy Death Day (2017), with its bubbly protagonist who is amusingly exasperated every time she wakes up in the same bed on the same day, nor does it boast the high-octane hurly-burly of Edge of Tomorrow (2014), with its chaotic setting and enormous stakes. This is a small-scale, relentlessly downbeat time-loop movie in which the clock is only reset once we’ve watched two innocent, damaged people being terrorized in what seems like grueling slow-motion. Its cycles do not see Tobias mount increasingly successful fightbacks. This is not a man of action but a broken one. His efforts get worse before they get better.
With each new cycle, we see more of the journey that led the couple to the campsite and learn more about their ailing relationship. Three years after the prologue, which sees a happy holiday brought to a devastating close with the death of their daughter, the warmth and mirth of their marriage have gone, replaced by bitterness and spite. The cruelty they later endure bears a curious connection to their daughter, specifically to the music box they gave her right before her passing: the marauders seem to be borne of it.
So, whether it be a literal, cosmic punishment or an abstract representation of their inner turmoil, this recurring nightmare is little more than the quotidian misery of mourning and the strain it puts on relationships. Grief is to wake up every day only to have your spirit killed again. Tobias and Elin would surely give their own lives a million times over to bring their daughter back. But they can’t, which leads to resentment of each other and perhaps of their having a child in the first place – much of the violence they suffer, whether it be a dog attack on Elin or a pistol repeatedly pointed at Tobias, is directed towards their sex organs.
Loss affects us all differently. Some deal with their traumas visibly, others prefer to not acknowledge them at all. Crucially, the horrors that make up most of Nyholm’s movie seem to be in Tobias’s head, a world that only he remembers and in which he lacks the strength to protect his wife. Each morning Elin wakes up with no memory of it and her husband has to convince her of the encroaching danger. We are given an insight into Elin’s head only once and, in her dream, Tobias is conspicuously absent.
Though its meditations on sorrow bring to mind those of Austrian misery guts Michael Haneke, Koko-di Koko-da’s folkloric undercurrents, frequent absurdisms and typically dark Scandinavian sense of humour ensure that the experience of watching it is never as bleak as that of something like Funny Games (1997, 2007). Elin’s dream features one of several animated shadowplays that punctuate the film. Not only do these fabled sequences provide all-important breaks from the sadism of the central story but, despite their comparatively crude visuals, they also provide the picture’s most poignant moments, thanks in part to some stirring sound design, and Simon Ohlsson and Olof Cornéer’s plaintive score.
After several cycles, Tobias eventually overcomes his nerves and tries a different tack, literally dragging Elin to the car to exact an escape. But, each time, an unfortunate twist of fate leads them right back to that tent the next morning. It all ends back where it started, with Tobias and Elin eventually triggering what appears to be the beginning of their nightmare. The message is clear, then: there is no escape. But there is hope. The film ends with Tobias and Elin sharing a tender moment of reconciliation.
There is no defeating grief, only surviving it. We just have to make it to another sunrise, together.