Transference is a psychotherapy concept relating to when a person’s feelings about one person are unconsciously attributed to another. Transference: A Love Story is a tough romance about how pain, trauma and mental illness can throw a wrench in a budding relationship. Katerina (Emilie Sofie Johannesen) is a Norwegian immigrant in London working as a nurse and avoiding contact with her family back home as much as possible for troubling reasons that are never quite disclosed. She meets Nik (Raffaello Degruttola, who also directed the film), a kind and quiet fellow nurse who helps Katerina acclimate to her new home. He’s older than she is, has lived more of a life than she has and isn’t always forthcoming about his past. The two have chemistry, but her past trauma and his bipolar disorder creates obstacles their mutual infatuation may not be able to overcome.
Johannesen and Degruttola are particularly great here, imbuing their characters with a lot of subtle emotionality that wouldn’t be present if this were filmed as a more traditional romantic story. This is a story of damaged people trying their best to move forward together without ever quite letting their guard down. It’s focused on the two lead characters’ mental states and relatively light on plotting. There are no big revelatory moments that trivialize their experiences. Rather than being a movie about two characters’ trauma and illness, it feels more like an observation of a difficult relationship from the outside in. Due to the lack of traditional plotting, the characters may feel two-dimensional to some, and certainly the script could be shot that way. These performances, though, make Katerina and Nik come alive.
The early meet-cute sequences are shot and scored with an ominous tone, to such an extent that a trashier film might later reveal Nik to be a dangerous man, a predator of some type. That’s not what Transference is, though, and the sense of foreboding only results in “small-scale” domestic tension and the frustrating reality that sometimes the most simple things — like telling someone how you feel or about who you are — can be more difficult and feel more impossible than all the fictions you could imagine. Sometimes when a movie like this focuses on the mundane, the tension is actually greater and the emotional fallout more intense than any fantastical twists. It’s a quiet, engaging, upsetting and ultimately uplifting film that speaks to the messiness of love between complex people.