Aino Suni’s neon tale of toxic friendships, ‘Heartbeast’ glows in Gothenburg Film Festival

Aino Suni is a female director based in Helsinki and has been described as one of the most promising Scandinavian directors of her generation. She has directed multiple short films that were selected in prestigious festivals and her first feature film documentary Never Again, about the rapper Mercedes Bentso, had its world premiere in 2018 at Love & Anarchy HIFF, before theatrical releases in Sweden and Finland.

2022 sees the release of her second feature; ‘Heartbeast‘ which is predominantly in French, but centres around Elina, a 17-year old aspiring rapper, who is forced to move from Finland to the South of France when her mother finds a French boyfriend. She is immediately drawn to her new stepsister, Sofia, a charismatic ballet dancer who loves to mess around with boys and drugs. Elina and Sofia’s friendship starts to turn into a power game with toxic consequences.

Director Aino Suni

Heartbeast’ is part of the 2022 Nordic Competition at Gothenburg Film Festival – how does that feel to be selected in this category?

I am very proud to be part of a great selection of Nordic films in the competition. Gothenburg Film Festival is the largest festival in the Nordic countries so it’s a great spot to get your film noticed.

Not to mention how lucky we are to be able to share the premiere experience with a real live audience. In Finland it wouldn’t be possible at the moment because of the unfairly heavy restrictions that block events completely. 

Finnish cinema is currently having a huge movement – with ‘Compartment No 6’ picking up much acclaim from Cannes, ‘Girl Picture’ winning at Sundance, and Finnish horror ‘Hatching’ also picking up interest – How exciting is it to have your film part of that?

I feel that Finnish cinema is really stepping up. I guess for a long time Finnish films didn’t dream of succeeding abroad and maybe they were aimed too exclusively at Finnish audiences. Now we have a generation of new filmmakers, who think internationally from the get-go – also the industry has become more open to co-productions.

Being such a small country I think it’s key to have collaboration to achieve the next level. I fell that a plenitude of new stories and voices are emerging, which is so healthy for cinema. I am happy to be a small part of that evolution with my film.

Photo Credit: Kerttu Hakkarainen

One of the striking features in this piece is your use of colour and neon, as seen in Gaspar Noe or Nicholas Winding Refn movies. How important a role does colour play in Heartbeast?

Me and the visionary cinematographer Kerttu Hakkarainen both love vivid colours and have a bold touch. At some point the Nordic Noir trend made films look very bleak. As it definitely fits for some stories, for ours we wanted to use the whole palette.

South of France is such an intensely colourful environment with its pink sunsets, glimmering night lights and brightly coloured flowers. We were super inspired by the beautiful French Riviera. There’s all kinds of nice little colour ideas in the film – like how Elina’s green hair and edgy style makes her stick out in Sofia’s pink room. 

“South of France is such an intensely colourful environment…we were super inspired by the beautiful French Riviera. There’s all kinds of nice little colour ideas in the film”

Funnily, both directors you mention have definitely influenced my taste and style for cinematography. Gaspar Noe’s hypnotically visual universe is absolutely superb. I would also like to mention Isabella Eklöf’s exquisite film Holiday and the way she uses wide shots with painstakingly long takes. With Kerttu, we wanted to have a vintage Brian de Palma -kind of look, but bring it to this day and make our own kind of take on it.

There is an incredible performance from Elsi Sloan who manages to convey a myriad of emotions to the viewer. How and where did you discover them?

When Elsi first came to the auditions I was immediately struck by their intense presence and charisma. For the second round we asked people to rap a part of the song we have in the final film – and it’s in French. Elsi didn’t really speak any French, but since they are a musician they learned the song phonetically by ear  and performed it with such intensity we were absolutely blown away.

Despite their insufficient language skills I was convinced Elsi had to have this role. During the eight months prior to shootings, Elsi dedicated themselves to learning French with the help of a lovely private tutor.

On top of all this, Elsi is an amazing, natural actor – emotions travel through their face effortlessly and they are also super devoted to do the best job they can. 

Photo Credit: Kerttu Hakkarainen

Elsi’s character speaks and raps in both Finnish and French – that is no easy skill to pull off. Do you speak both languages fluently? What was your input on their music in the film and also the overall soundtrack (which is fantastic)?

I speak a little French but understand well. About a year before the shootings I was lucky enough to stay in Cannes for three months to polish the script. During that time I also studied French everyday at a local language school, in order to better infiltrate in French culture.

I also did some research – I worked a little at a breakdance event and got to know the local hip hop community. Also I spent some time in a prestigious Rosella Hightower ballet school in Cannes and interviewed students and teachers there.

I am a huge hip hop fan but my life tragedy is that I am not musical myself. My secret passion is to write rap lyrics, which I never let anyone see. So working on the music for this film was a dream come true. I got to collaborate with such amazing artists and see closely how they think and work.

“I am a huge hip hop fan…my secret passion is to write rap lyrics, which I never let anyone see.”

French rapper Chilla is the one who wrote the main track for the film. Her style is absolutely amazing and fresh. I wanted that Finnish rapper Merceder Bentso would write the lyrics for the first rap song, since her way with words is just breathtaking.

The film’s unique score is composed by JB Dunckel known also from him work in Sofia Coppola’s iconic Virgin Suicides. I was a bit starstruck when we first met, but he’s such an easy going person we got along really well. We talked a lot about the mood and the emotions I wanted for the scenes, and also about references such as Vangelis whose score for Blade Runner I absolutely adore.

2022 has clearly got off to a great start for you – what are you looking forward to next?

I am currently writing my next feature script. There’s also a tv-series I am developing together with two young and talented writer-actors Minea Lång and Reetta Koskinen, produced by Aamu Film Company. I also want to continue working on documentaries and there’s a lovely doc series idea I develop with Mete Sasioglu from Sons of Lumiere. 

The stunning poster for Heartbeast

Interview by Alex Minnis