Leni is a devastating, emotional, turbulent and raw look at the consequences of domestic violence and abusive relationships told very cleverly through the medium of a victim of these real-life horrors undergoing a psychological and physical haunting.
The first thing to point out is how strikingly beautiful the entire film is, from cinematography to production values. Everything visually about this film is such high quality, from the use of lightning and scenery, and set and location choices, to the way colours are used. There are lots of red and blue hues overlaying scenes, and dark rooms lit by minimal light-sources that really set the mood and tone, as well as give the film an almost ethereal fairytale-like quality.
Leni, played by Ailin Zaninovich, is immediately introduced in the film’s cold-open in a chaotically destroyed room, on the floor and screaming and sobbing in a primal distraught kind of way. This immediately sets the tone as we then follow her struggling to piece her life back together in the wake of her finally kicking her abusive boyfriend out, as we also come to learn that this is one of many moments throughout her entire life that she has suffered abuse.
Zaninovich imbues Leni with such a proud fragility, her facial expressions always look slightly like a deer in the headlights and betray her often fierce and confident actions and body language. She’s equal parts diminutive and withdrawn as well as strong and confident. It’s a delicately layered performance of a damaged woman that sees her really shine as an actress, and as we find out by the time the credits roll, is also one that’s entirely necessary for the film to work.
Thankfully we only get brief flashbacks and glimpses that allude to Leni’s abuse, as the film rather cleverly decides not to show us the actual abuse happening, as a result it really plays out like an abstract part of Leni’s point of view. This is because the film isn’t interested in showing the horror of abuse as it’s happening, but rather the horror of the consequences and the trauma that Leni has experienced as a result of it having happened.
Leni’s trauma is manifested by visions and nightmares of things being covered in dirt, muddy footsteps following her around and, really horrifically, she sees a demonic swamp-thing-esque monster and some-sort of burnt or buried looking zombies stalking her throughout the film in a blurring of reality and fantasy.
All of this builds towards a cathartic and emotional conclusion that is sold entirely by the performance of Leni during a particularly memorable shot where she’s fallen to the floor and she lets out another primal scream but for entirely different reasons.
This finale has a reveal that completely changes the framework, context and perspective of everything that preceded it in a way that is relatively fitting and creates a satisfying payoff. Sure, it leans into the abuse victim becoming a monster as a result of the abuse trope, but it comes across as more triumphant and more empowering than reductive.
Consequently Leni is a highly polished, blending of reality and fantasy that leads to an extremely effective horror film, but an even more effective use of horror as a metaphor to portray how the burden of trauma can often be as monstrous as the evil that caused that trauma in the first time, and how sometimes the only way to fight those monsters is to confront it head on.
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