‘September Says’ Review: Ariane Labed Moves from Acting to Directing with a Disturbing Portrait of Codependent Sisters

There is a subgenre that basks in the creaturely natures of girls and women. Forget the ethereal sisters of “The Virgin Suicides” for here are some hot messes. Found in the literature of Shirley Jackson, Angela Carter and Deborah Levy and in films by Josephine Decker and Luna Carmoon, this is a mode of characterisation that delights in stripping away the illusion of a “fairer sex” in order to marinate in the feminine grotesque.

Ariane Labed’s entry to this canon, her directorial feature debut “September Says,” is infused with her own history as a Greek New Wave actress. There are shades of her break-out role in Yorgos Lanthimos’ claustrophobic family drama “Dogtooth” and a callback to her animal impressions in Athina Rachel Tsangari’s sublime, underrated “Attenberg.” Otherwise, Labed follows the sketchy map laid out by Daisy Johnson’s source novel, “Sisters.”

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September (Pascale Kann) is older than her sister July (Mia Tharia) by a few crucial months. They are introduced while dressed as the ghost twins from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” Out of shot, someone flicks red across their face to complete their creepy look. Then a camera bulb flashes. The photographer is the girls’ depressed and distant mother Sheela (Rakhee Thakrar).

Thakrar is best known as Ms Sands from the beloved UK series “Sex Education” but we’re not in the progressive bubble of Moordale High anymore. At the Oxford secondary school that September and July attend, they are subject to racist micro-aggressions and a nastiness that slips into violence. Their difference is apparent both in their skin and in their strange, insular behaviors.

July freezes in the face of cruelty, September retaliates. Sometimes her strikes are preemptive. When Sheela wonders where September’s easy violence comes from, she snaps back, “I must take after my father” — the only allusion to the missing man. “We’re not eating red food anymore,” she announces over dinner. At this, July lets a tomato fall out of her mouth. September is disciplinarian, protector and head of this female colony of three. Theirs is a female microcosm, yet, unlike in films such as Lucile Hadžihalilović’s “Evolution” and Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking” there is little desire to create a new world order. Patriarchal violence has not been renounced but passed on and from that first flick of red, it glimmers and grows.

Working against this menacing edge is the now familiar deadpan tone of the Greek New Wave. Labed uses this in an entertaining if scattershot way to land stray punchlines amidst the disturbing atmosphere. The result is to undermine stakes already muffled by a replication of the book’s withholding narrative. A hard cut away from an unspecified Bad Thing at school sees the trio on the road to a family home in rural Ireland. In this old house full of dead relatives’ clothes, a catatonic Sheela retires to bed leaving September and July to their own wayward devices.

Labed’s short film “Olla” was a perfect miniature, detailing an Eastern European woman whose search for matrimony saddles her with a stifling life in England but whose punk spirit finds a way to express itself. With “Olla” Labed made something big out of a small idea, with “September Says” the expansive-yet-vague material slips in and out of resonance, despite compelling performances from the central cast.

Thakrar is MVP, essaying a mentally-checked out woman whose instincts occasionally flare into being, like the twitch of a sleeping animal. A flex of what Labed is capable of comes when Sheela gets bored of being depressed in bed and ventures out to a local pub. As an elegant woman with Indian heritage, she is unlike anything this town has ever seen before she nails several large whiskeys, a bag of crisps and a strange man — whom she picks up with zero effort. There follows some sexual healing that is amongst the most bracingly pragmatic in recent cinematic memory, featuring the film’s only use of interior monologue as well as the postcoital pleasantry. “Take care!” Labed excels at bringing out the offbeat nuances of intimacy. She has a warm comic knack that is challenged by this chilly material.

September and July are — naturally for such unboundaried offspring — trying to watch their mother having sex by peering under the door. A chance for their own sexual forays comes soon enough. Or rather, it is a chance for July. A local boy takes a shine to her, disrupting September’s de facto position as their collective mouthpiece. That this fresh start seems more likely to bring dread than liberation is a testament to an ominous score from Johnnie Burn, who won an Oscar for his work on “The Zone of Interest.” His work pushes the folie et deux that the sisters have made for themselves into a heightened realm that isn’t fully upheld by the rest of the choices here.

Tharia and Kann are excellent and this is, in many ways, a film about their faces. The former is full of fledgling independent desires yet is scared to take control of her destiny. Yorgos Lanthimos’s new film that just premiered in competition at Cannes “Kinds of Kindness” is also about the human need to perform subservience to a malign human authority. His lost souls seek unrelated authority figures, whereas here the connection flows through the blood. July’s tendency to do whatever September says is an affirmation of their own obscure trauma bond, forged through events that the story is not interested in unearthing.

“September Says” is at its strongest when July comes into her own. Amongst smashed glass, spilt milk and jagged shards, the emotions elided in an otherwise avoidant psychological portrait finally bloom in flickers of red.These equally serve as flickers of what may be in store from Labed should she choose to tell stories in a more hotblooded vein. This is an intriguing if flawed debut that is most forceful in its impressionistic commitment to showing the feminine grotesque.

Grade: B

“September Says” premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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