Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Anna Karenina, by Lev Nikolayevich
Regarded as one of the world’s greatest authors, Leo Tolstoy’s exceptional 1877 novel perspicacious first line (quoted above) encapsulates a unique understanding of individual levels of unhappiness in families. During Filmfest Hamburg, I saw three interpretations of that theme highlighting the cause and effect of an enabler, a controller, and a crippler. Each film had compelling dialogue, and enticing-cum-disconcerting visual styles depicting the particular point-of-view; good storytelling is a gift.
A classic father–son–bonding scene sets the mood as WILDLIFE begins. When the Brinson’s sit down to supper, it’s like watching the same-era television program Father Knows Best, although Father Knows Best? was its radio title (1949 to 1954). New to the rugged Montana area, Jerry energetically expounds on 14-year-old Joe playing football (anything for dad) and the golf club, while Jeanette hovers over them. Life seems good. Until, in quick succession, Jerry’s made redundant, a check bounces, and Joe’s benched throughout his first football game. “I thought it’d be easy.” Dad alternates between daydreaming and blaming others, in tandem with Mom’s cooing and stroking his ego. Subsequently, Jeanette lands a job teaching adults swimming to keep the family financially afloat, whereas Jerry’s drinking increases. Helplessly watching from the sidelines, Joe’s worry deepens as their squabbling increases. The crux arrives when Jerry takes off to a raging mountainous inferno with a brigade of quasi-firefighters. With Jerry removed from the scene this family’s troubles erupt. Quietly infuriated by Jerry’s thoughtless actions, on her own the enabler reverts to demeaning behavior. Even responsibility for young Joe doesn’t stop Jeanette: Like the scorpion said to the frog in the fable, “I could not help myself. It is my nature.”
Paul Dano’s directorial debut brilliantly composes a thoughtful, poignant although painful portrait of a family in crisis. The cast personifies their characters, with Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal giving career-best performances. Reintroducing straight-cut editing emphasizes turbulence raging below surface. This sort-of fable’s moral lesson succinctly illustrates that by honestly assessing situations, and then taking bold, corrective action happiness might be achieved.
An enclave of proud, white Afrikaner minority living in South Africa’s Free State region is THE HARVESTERS (Die Stropers) focus. Jan and Maria’s household revolves around Bible-thumping fervor, hard work, and zealous prayer devotion; their cattle and crop farm is huge. As the oldest, Janno’s duties include moving cattle between grazing spots, and tending crops. Surreptitiously determined, Maria decides to foster Pieter; the older, troubled fledgling’s presence throws the family’s equilibrium out of kilter. Dad’s vigilant whereby Janno’s leery, although three younger sisters’ curiosity excludes unfriendliness. Conversely, Granddad obstinately insists no interloper’s inheriting his farm. The sons’ fractious interactions trigger Maria’s praying extra-fervently, besides imploring Janno for support. Caught mingling with black harvesters, Jan sends Pieter to the church-sponsored boys’ camp. Afterward, Pieter’s wiser of the isolated enclave’s secrets, and more determined to fit in. Which directly impacts Janno’s sensitivities, secrets and culpability with the unfortunate result he’s deaf to any reason.
Writer-director Etienne Kallos’ impressive debut feature interweaves religious beliefs, nature, and control themes. Darkly suspenseful, the muddled family’s fixation on preserving its precarious outer veneer shatters before our eyes. It’s apparent the boys’ (Benré Labuschagne, and Alex van Dyk first-time performances are compelling) counterbalanced personalities could be formidable, if they worked together. Crystal-clear is what, and who’s in control: “Dear Father, please make this boy strong, make his blood strong, make his semen strong,” Maria pleads. Set against a stupendous landscape with emotive sound design, this story’s undercurrents are strong, deep and keenly felt, and more sinister, powerful. In the last scene, Pieter shrewdly looks around the family dinner table; he knows exactly what he’s signed on for.
FUGUE’s opening sequence is mesmerizing; repelling and moving, it’s a harbinger of the film’s intriguing plot. We are about to deep-dive into the crippling consequence of deception. In hopes of learning her identity a woman appears on a television talk-show; since emerging two years earlier, “Alicja’s” amnesia remains fixed. Her alleged father’s call-in leads to Alicja being returned to a former life: “Kinga” – daughter, wife, and mother whose wardrobe, mannerisms, and nonsmoking proclivities exudes foreignness. The youngster shies away from and/or ignores Alicja, whereas she and the estranged husband circle one another, mistrustful yet interested. Rebuffing attempts to assimilate into the suffocating home-life, nonetheless, emotional shifts eventually occur among the three. Ever so slowly, Alicja’s shadows take shapes albeit intrinsic-external things preclude a complete metamorphose. Only by returning to the beginning is her fugue dispersed, whereby Alicja knows what’s needed to liberate them.
Polish director Agnieszka Smoczynska’s fascinating, although unsettlingly second film’s imbued with a sinister quality coursing between the characters’ interactions and expectations. Particularly, that someone Alicja trusted assumed and instigated insidious alliances; refreshing is the universality effect of renewal. Smoczynska’s penchant for mixing things—music styles, genres—is evident. Gabriela Muskała’s commanding performance makes the psychodrama more terrifyingly real. Moody cinematography with exceptional sound design strongly influences FUGUE’s pernicious timbre.
Understandably, the three films screened at 2018 Cannes Film Festival. Equally, considerable empirical proof that action is emboldening courses through each. Just as nursery rhymes often camouflaged (historical) links against persons (English Kings), and practices (slavery, clericalism), while fairy tales endowed with contentment and happy endings related mostly to children’s literature. By contrast, wanting a happy family is what many wish for, but without positive action, few get.