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Sylvie is a hooker whose illegitimate daughter commits a crime. She and her daughter flee to find Sylvie's first love in the countryside. The daughter is trying to get to know her unwilling mother. Along the way, the two meet a male fugitive and bond with each other. Written by
Isabelle Huppert's character is neither brain-damaged nor schizophrenic. She suffers from what the DSM IV terms "dissociative amnesia". Some people just call it dissociation. The popular term for this phenomenon is repressed memories; however, professionals no longer use that term because it is inaccurate and fraught with misperceptions.
My interpretation of this character's history is this: At some point in her past, before she married her husband and had children, she experienced something which was so traumatic, terrifying, and threatening to her sense of safety and existence,that she had to lose awareness of it in order to not lose her mind. She had a breakdown later on and entered the psychiatric hospital. She got married and things were going okay for awhile but then something triggered the old trauma and she became dissociative again. She left her husband, started a new life and "forgot" all about her old life. She became emotionally shut down and empty because at this point she only functioned with a small amount of her emotional make-up. She had to shut the rest of it down because it contained knowledge that was too threatening for her to know about.
Then she has to run away because of the murder and she re-reads the letters from her ex-husband and slowly starts regaining awareness of that part of her life. However, she still can't remember the original trauma that caused all her problems. When she arrives back at the old house, images and impressions of her life there flood through her mind as if from a dream. This is what memories lost through dissociation are like when they come back. The director evoked this experience pretty accurately. I wanted to tell friends that if they want to see what it's like to remember things that one has lost through dissociation, to see this movie.
She lost the memory of her husband and her life with him because in some way that experience connected to the earlier, unbearable trauma.
She goes back to the psychiatric hospital because she wants to know about her past. She wants to know what happened during her marriage and also what the original trauma was.
I am not pulling this out of the air. For someone knowledgeable about dissociative amnesia, the clues in the movie are obvious.
For one thing, the husband refers in his letter to "that old trouble", or something like that. He says something like, "I know how fragile you are, but I thought that old trouble was behind you..." I can't remember exactly what he says. As I understood it, he was referring to trouble caused by traumatic experiences early in her life. Others may believe he's talking about mental illness such as schizophrenia, but they are incorrect. I'd have to see the film again to argue this point more effectively. However, there's too much else in this movie that makes it clear her problem is dissociation, not schizophrenia.
I can make this case with confidence because this character's story mirrors my own in many ways. The idea that a person can forget events central to her life because they call up old emotions and traumas, which she needed to block out, is not far-fetched. It happened to me. I did forget a significant person, as well as the events and emotions connected with him. I did read his letters years later, and when I did, I started to remember our relationship of 27 years previously. I did find him and after I did, I gradually remembered most of what our relationship had been and who he was. When I called him out of the blue, he told me he had been in love with me all his life. He had never married. Now, he has moved on, after we talked at length about what had happened and I explained to him why I had broken up with him in the terrible way that I did.
When I remembered the relationship I'd had with him, all the emotions connected with it felt as if they'd happened last week, not 27 years ago.
I too have been wanting to remember the details of the original trauma. I had started remembering it before I remembered the old boyfriend. A lot of it has come back, but not all. I think that Isabelle's character probably did get at least some of the answers she was looking for. The fact that the audience didn't get these answers only means that the specific reason she dissociated in the first place is not the most important part of the story.
What's important is the story that came after -- how it affected her and her family, what they all lost, and how she recovered her full self.
It's also about how people need love to heal and how love enables us to heal each other.
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