The Arbalest garnered a lot of attention earlier this year where it received the Grand Jury Prize for narrative features at this year's SXSW, and despite it's obvious weirdness I can understand why.
Through a series of three nested stories that take place throughout the late sixties and early seventies, The Arbelest centers around Foster Kalt (Mike Brune), a shy game inventor who gradually goes insane due to his obsession with Sylvia (Tallie Medel) who rebuffs his affections. The earliest story finds the two taking advantage of a terrible situation to become rich business partners, with the middle turning Kalt into a Hunter S. Thompson-like stalker, and the last showing a news crew attempting to find out what Kalt's newest mystery invention is after years of living in silence.
The film's production design and style are quite interesting; there's a certain plainness to the authenticity of the headache-inducing 60s geometric wallpaper and the strange triangular architecture of Kalt's reclusive home. The way it's shot makes these things seem less like a period piece and more surreal, owing much to Twin Peaks without making it overtly dream-like.
Perhaps most intriguing about The Arbalest is the central narrative, which subverts the usual story in which the intrepid man doggedly pursues the girl until he convinces her to love him back; here we see Sylvia become increasingly repulsed by Kalt as he becomes more and more eccentric and dangerous. This main plot thread wears a little thin, but where it leads as Kalt begins seeking revenge is where the film really elevates itself into something much bigger.
**Be Warned! Spoilers Below!**
There is a twist near the end of the film, in which we discover that Kalt's newest invention is no toy, but instead a weapon; a gun, in fact, this world's first gun. This bizarre revelation is one that puts the rest of the film in a completely new light, and uncovers some actual meaning where before there arguably was none outside of interesting style. It points out a weird sadness when the viewer realizes how hard it is to imagine a modern world without guns. It makes the references to the military and a world where people don't really know how to react to violence a little more poignant and less silly, and seems to demand that you watch the movie again right there and then to see what else you can grasp with this new information in mind.
As I said in the opening, I can understand why this won the Grand Jury Prize at SXSW–in some ways. It's director, Adam Pinney, was the cinematographer on Adult Swim's extraordinarily strange "Too Many Cooks", and that kind of willingness to play with the form to produce something that is creative for creativity's sake is prevalent here and tends to play well with audiences. The Arbalest feels like a movie that wants to make you think it's a lot smarter than it actually is; there's something to be said for a film that creates a world that allows you to make those kind of strange and accidental connections, but I'm not willing to quite say that it all adds up to something cohesive. That said, many have found the connections between toys and guns to be pretty moving, and I'm not ready to write that interpretation off, either.
Despite it's problems–it's pretentious, feels long even at 73 minutes, and might be pointless–The Arbalest is a fascinating piece of filmmaking, wrought with weird imagery, a unique narrative structure, and a twist that will have you rethinking the entire film in a universe-shifting new light. For that reason, I have to recommend it for those seeking a new cinematic experience.