Maryland has provided a gritty, grubby backdrop to productions ranging from HBO’s The Wire to the whole of John Waters’ portfolio, but it may never have looked so enchanted, so freshly peeled from a book of fairy tales, as it does in the experimental indie film Leda. Director/cowriter Samuel Tressler IV, who devoted five years of his life to the project, films in and around the woods and lakes and mansions of a Maryland that passes for Anywhere. The milieu appears to be timeless, though set in a world predating technology. The harshly gorgeous atmosphere (Nick Midwig did the largely black-and-white cinematography) reminded me of Kenneth Patchen’s bothersome verse “Come now, my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we’d be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest?”

Is anything planning to harm Leda (Adeline Thery)? She seems haunted in general. Her father perished in a fox-hunt accident; her mother fell ill and died before that. Now she drifts around her property, sometimes visibly pregnant, having upsetting visions mostly involving a swan, though an egg also puts in a few appearances, in perhaps the most ominous use of that object since Alien. In Greek mythology, of course, Leda was a Spartan queen impregnated by Zeus; in the form of a swan, he “seduced” her, we are often told, softening the reality of the encounter as rape. (Can consent be freely given to a god, especially one as legendarily concupiscent and sensitive to offense as the king of Mount Olympus?) 

Leda’s cousin (Nicolle Marquez) comes to stay with her and look after her. There is a man who does some picking up around the mansion, and perhaps more. Leda keeps passing into daydreams or nightmares usually having to do with water. She swims in, bathes in, washes with, and at certain points walks on the stuff. Sometimes she stays submerged for so long we hope the actress has good lungs. Such spoilsport thoughts may only occur to those of us who view the film in less than optimal conditions. Leda is ideally screened in anaglyph 3D — the sort that requires red/cyan glasses — with a stereo system that does justice to the enveloping sound process; it has been designed as an immersive art experience. I viewed it in plain ol’ 2D on my laptop and heard it through earbuds — getting the very least of the meat, you could say — but to be honest, this is how most people from here on out are going to watch it. And they’ll have to make do with the no-frills version I saw.

Leda is clearly an audiovisual riff, and a spectacular one; Tressler has an eye, an ear, and a soul for art. The narrative, though, such as there is, tends toward the abstract and sometimes into the opaque. We see the man on the floor scrubbing at a spot. This may or may not signify something other than itself. But the child inside us who’s being told a story wants to know who the man is and what his function in the story is — why is he here? (Eventually we find out, but he still seems like abstracted Man. His character name as per the credits is literally The Man.) It’s the rare but wonderful creation that satisfies on literal and metaphorical fronts; when someone pulls it off, it feels like a magic trick.

Samuel Tressler is not that level of wizard yet, but he’s got 85% of his ducks in a row here. He can set and maintain a hypnotic mood, either soothing or needling — by the way, did I mention the film has no dialogue or even narration? Not a human word is heard, though the nature-driven sound design, with all its raindrops dappling the serene surface of a lake, disqualifies Leda from being a true silent film. Anyway, Tressler goes a long way here on tone and visual/aural poetry. But some of the meanings seem still locked up in Tressler’s heart. This or that image may mean more to him than it could to us. Artists want us to see what they see, but sometimes they forget to set the scene, do the primitive foundational work of the tale told round the fire, and we get lost in a strange landscape that seems very routine and familiar to them, but…

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