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Panos H. Koutras
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To celebrate Aggeliki's eleventh birthday, a well-organised party is held in her honour. Everything is in order, and all the ingredients of a usual birthday gathering are here: a nice and big sugar-glazed cake, happy music, a caring grandfather's embrace--a truly loving family environment. However, is any of this real, or is this an elaborate facade? Little by little, as a devastating act of despair unfolds before a stunned family, wolves and lambs slowly get lured into a web of hideous secrets, and a frantic downward spiral of lies and deceptive appearances. But, in the end, as one unwillingly unravels the sinners' blood-curdling mysteries kept behind closed doors, the plunge into the depths of the human soul and the unfathomable secrets within is inevitable.Written by
A well known Buddhist proverb goes that 'pain is inevitable, suffering is optional'. By extension violence is inevitable, loss and tragedy are inevitable, but how we let them into our lives makes a world of difference. It matters how a filmmaker reconfigures anxieties into the heightened reality of film, it matters how we as viewers allow our gaze to lucidly inhabit things.
Here's what I mean. In a nutshell the film is about limits to vision. A father keeps his middle-class family under strict and abusive control, almost trapped in their apartment, with exchange for the relative comforts this life provides them. The fridge is always stocked, they can have icecream, and once they finish their homework the reward is a trip to the beach, sometimes postponed.
Ostensibly we have a powerful indictment of this materialist life that in some level is true for most, a life with no spiritual horizons, a boxed safety where mechanical effort is punished or rewarded, and the ripples of violence it sends out.
But if you really look? If you don't just accept this passively wrapped in a box as a lesson on evil? In other words if you adopt the questioning attitude that the father inside the film denies his family and is part of the damage to them, if you begin to question these imposed walls and limits?
The film itself is materialist and constricts our vision. The camera always frames cleanly, the actors are waxen figures on wallpaper, the dialogue is stilted. Animal instincts are even hammered home with footage of apes on TV. All deliberately so but this changes little if it doesn't wake us from our viewing stupor. We have here a world of stifled imagination by stifling ours.
Deeper, the film is content with just the lesson, we never finally at some point enter these lives to know the people behind the masks. We see these people just as Welfare does when they visit, not from within their world but as calculating arbiters. We miss the powerful tension that upsets social workers in these cases, where the abusive parent is still in spite of everything else looked up as a father.
So instead of being called to juggle these states of conflicting truth, we end up after a certain point with an incomprehensible monster and his victims. Of course these monsters exist, which brings us back to how a filmmaker chooses to reconfigure the existence. Saying 'but it happens' doesn't cut it. So do you provoke a damning answer that we can put aside and forget, cleansed for the night that we are not these people, if still mildly unnerved that they are around, or do you evoke a deeper value that will keep me up at night, questioning the limits I inhabit as safe?
This is clean and narrow, there is too much Haneke here and not enough Pasolini or Cassavetes.
Remember Woman Under the Influence? A schizophrenic mother who in the calculating eyes of Welfare would be incompetent to raise children, and yet we see her love and ache, and confused and deathly afraid, and still cutting herself on her broken pieces as she reaches out to love. Marvelous film. But that required patient sculpting in time, an interested eye, ambiguous horizon, wanting to know from the inside.
There is one thing here that I liked. We are not immediately sure just who is who in this family, mother or daughter, father or grandfather. Linked to sex, it creates a powerful tension. We have to search for and define our own limits in this house, then break free of them to examine that self which assumed a narrative: does it change something if the old woman is not the mother? Is the indifference or pain less real?
Too bad. I saw the film at its Greek premiere a few days ago, with the director and cast in attendance. In the ensuing Q&A, no one really questioned the experience of the film for what it presented, at least no one that was comfortable to do so in front of a crowd.
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