As part of their ‘Walter Presents’ season which celebrates the best of international television drama, Channel 4 are offering the chance to watch the Danish series ‘Heartless’ (2014-). Introduced to viewers as ‘[a]n 18 certificate Twilight‘, ‘Heartless’ is Scandi noir with a supernatural element. (And should not be confused with the British film of the same name). Comparing it to the Twilight series is misleading. Aside from a love affair between a supernatural vampire-like creature and a human, I can think of few similarities. Indeed, the word vampire is not used within the series. The viewer is introduced to an orphaned brother and sister, Sebastian and Sofie, who suck the soul from their victims. If they are unable to stop in time their victim bursts into flames. They must eat souls regularly or they become ‘hungry’ and are called ‘black-eyes’. This name comes from the fact that once their hunger is aroused, their eyes turn entirely black. Their peculiar appetite arises at the age of 12 or 13 suggesting a connection to sexual maturity and puberty. Throughout the series both sexual and romantic desire cause them to become hungry and to kiss means to feed.
Season One, and there is meant to be a second series coming soon, is only eight episodes and follows Sofie and Sebastian as they try to discover how they came to be. This search leads them to Ottman Manor a prestigious private school with a dark past. It is this history, rooted in the witch trials of the 1600s, that is the key to the two siblinds understanding how they can manage their condition. The narrative entwines the past and the present in a particularly Gothic manner. Sofie has a pathological fear of water which is never entirely explained but appears to be a genetic memory related to her ancestor’s unhappy past. The setting also recalls a number of YA Gothic texts with the repressive regime of Ottman Manor presided over by the headmaster, Just, and a trio of prefects being particularly nightmarish. The Gothic trope of the absent mother is also present. Sofie and Sebastian are given up by their mother and Just’s wife is dead leaving his three daughters, Ida, Emilie and Clara (who, it turns out, might be witches). Echoing his control over the school, Just attempts to keep his daughters separate from the rest of the students – although unsuccessfully.
In the opening scenes, Sebastian and Sofie sit in a car discussing how long it has been since Sebastian has fed. Unlike Sofie he is racked with guilt about his actions and wants to discover the reason for their affliction. However, any sympathy we may feel for Sebastian is lost when we release that he is in many ways the more volatile of the two. Having convinced his sister to go hunting, which she does in a club scene redolent of those in the Blade films, he pulls her victim to his own mouth failing to release in time so that they burst into flames. This theme continues throughout the series with Sebastian’s moral consciousness – Sofie tells him it is sick that he falls in love with his food – leading him to become warped: forced into actions he detests and increasingly unable to tell the difference between right and wrong. Sofie though more at ease with her identity is ultimately more sympathetic because in acknowledging her affliction she has more control over it.
Indeed the series concentrates less on physical containment than emotional repression. Though Ottman Manor is the typical Gothic haunted house, the students seem surprisingly free to come and go as they like. They are continually leaving the campus to wander about in the woods. There are repeated shots of individuals and couples moving through huge spaces of wilderness drawing the viewer’s attention to their isolation. It is the emotional undercurrents that make viewing this series uncomfortably. The prefects’ sadistic pleasure in following orders and Just’s increasingly unhinged search for the ‘black eyes’ drives much of the violence. Sofie and Sebastian’s feeding habits hint at both sexual violence and addiction. They are unable to have a healthy relationship. Sebastian starts to regularly feed from Sofie’s room-mate Nadja who is enthralled by him. He does not care for her but relies on her for a food source. Nadja returns to him time and time again apparently addicted to his ‘kisses’ but continually fighting her desire for him. Unlike many YA Gothic texts, she is very conscious that the mysterious and aloof creature she loves is treating her cruelly.
The relationship between Sofie and Sebastian also veers into abusive and incestuous. It is possible to pass energy between them but only through kissing one another. Episodes repeatedly show scenes of the two of them apparently making out. Sebastian also forces himself onto his sister in order to suck from her. Meanwhile, in the Just household, Ida has taken the role of her mother and is submissive to her father’s wishes. Her younger sister Emilie accuses Ida of sleeping with Just though this is never verified. These darker elements make the series far more explicit than other YA Gothic texts. Not only is sex portrayed relatively openly on screen but the metaphors and tropes of Gothic and vampiric texts – sex, violence, death, desire, incest, repression – are far more overt. There is a lack of coyness about what the supernatural represents.
However these elements can also make the series problematic. They are not explored enough to give a clear message regarding sexual violence. There are times when characters and their actions are portrayed too simplistically without a nuanced exploration of their behaviour. In part this is because the script is sparse and much of the story is told without speech. Instead the series relies on beautiful shots of the Danish countryside to create a moody atmosphere. The lighting throughout the episodes is striking: chiaroscuro is used effectively and is supported by the monochrome palate of the costumes. Sofie and Sebastian both wear black whilst Just’s daughters are usually dressed in white – think Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999). Just’s bright house is juxtaposed by the dark interiors of the manor. Visually ‘Heartless’ is understated Gothic which undercuts the more melodramatic elements of this teen supernatural drama. The soundtrack is equally striking – immediately after finishing the series I started listening to everything ‘Roxy Jules’ has produced.
In some ways ‘Heartless’ is a welcome antidote to the saturated colour of fairytale Gothic whilst in others it falls back on teenage cliché a little too often. Would I recommend it? Yes. Do I think everyone will like it? Not at all. But if anyone does decide to watch, please comment below and let me know what you thought.