Life: a user’s manual

Although radically different, these films both portrayed atypical family structures among the bourgeoisie; in particular they portray the impact of severe illness on the relationship between fathers and daughters. The French director François Ozon’s Everything Went Fine, adapted from the autobiographical novel by Emmanuèle Bernheim, begins punchily: within minutes, middle-aged sisters Emmanuèle (Sophie Marceau) and Pascale (Géraldine Pailhas) are in hospital, watching their father, André (André Dussollier), undergoes an MRI scan after he has had a catastrophic stroke. Soon after that André asks Emmanuèle to help him die. The Greek film-maker Jacqueline Lentzou’s more experimental and enigmatic Moon, 66 Questions concerns twenty-year-old Artemis (Sofia Kokkali), who is suddenly recalled to Greece from her studies in France to care for her estranged father, Paris (Lazaros Geôrgakopoulos), whos from multiple sclerosis and can no longer live independently. The idea for the film evolved out of Lentzou’s experience with her own father.

Ozon’s film is a tribute to Bernheim, a novelist and scriptwriter who collaborated with him on several of his films; she died in 2017. It successfully imports her first-person narrative into Ozon’s handsomely designed, spikey universe, retaining the spareness and restraint of the original account. Everything Went Fine is a good companion piece for Ozon’s earlier film Time to Leave (2005), in which Romain (Melvil Poupaud), a thirty-year-old gay man, finds that he has a terminal illness and only three months left to live. Ozon is a resolutely unsentimental storyteller, and both films center on a character whose acute suffering does not detract from his unpleasant personality traits. Like Romain, André is selfish, manipulative and at times downright odious.

Everything Went Fine is about Emmanuèle’s moral dilemma, which is laced with dark Ozon-style irony. André has been a tormentingly bad father and she has on many occasions wished him dead, but is it acceptable for her to help him shorten his life by arranging an illegal trip to Switzerland? The main drive of the film is the gradual alteration of Emmanuèle’s views regarding both her father’s request and his person. In an early scene, having forgotten to put in her contact lenses, she looks out at a blurry world. Later on certain images will appear before her with otherwordly clarity, such as her first sighting of “the lady from Switzerland” (Hanna Schygulla), standing in her Parisian hotel before an idealized mural of an Alpine landscape as though posing for a portrait. It is this lady who will act as ferrywoman in André’s medically assisted suicide.

Ozon hints at other stories lying beneath the main plotline. It is suggested repeatedly that Emmanuèle’s life and personality have been profoundly shaped by her upbringing. Yet there are only glimpses of what it may have been like to grow up with a father who is gay; of what the complexities of his life with his wife, Claude (Charlotte Rampling), and the ghost-like figure of his male lover (and abuser) Gérard (Grégory Gadebois) may have been. There is also an air of Gallic insouciance about the portrayal of André’s overt misogyny and crushing will to power: “We can’t refuse my father anything”, Emmanuèle says regularly, as though quoting a natural law.

Meanwhile, Ozon makes explicit one other dimension of Bernheim’s life that is passed over in her novel: her family’s Jewishness. In one scene André is challenged about his decision by a relative, a survivor of the Ravensbrück concentration camp who is morally outraged at the idea of ​​suicide. This is a weighty, thorny matter, and would have warranted a little more screen time, but it ends up evaporating into a nervous laughter. And indeed, when he is faced head on – for example, when André, waking up in hospital in his diminished body, lets out screams of terror – the character’s plight is difficult to endure. Sly light relief is provided in a scene when Emmanuèle unwinds at home by watching the French gore movie Frontiere(s), by Xavier Gens, which features a murderous family led by a cannibalistic neo-Nazi patriarch. Ultimately, this is a stylish comedy of manners about a tragic aspect of human experience, with a uniformly excellent cast, but it remains rather aloof.

Jacqueline Lentzou’s Moon, 66 Questionssubtitled A film about love, movement and flow (and the lack of them) is slow, resistant and bewildering where Everything Went Fine is pacy, polished and glossy. It also expresses an instinctive, lightly worn affinity with the mythic. The film opens with disorienting, fragmented VHS footage – a stationary car, a garden, a lone skier at the distance – liminal “non-images” reminiscent of Chantal Akerman’s cinema. There is also disjointed dialogue, and it takes a moment to understand who is speaking and what is happening. Over the course of the film some of those images, with their sense of uncertainty and opacity, become the crucible for the relationship between Artemis and her father, Paris. A shot of cable cars crossing each other in a snowy landscape accompanies Artemis’s voice: “What does ‘being close’ mean?”. She later reflects that her father is like VHS tapes without the relevant viewing technology: “I don’t know how to watch them.”

Besides the VHS fragments, there are mysterious intertitles featuring tarot cards, and some surprising and persuasive changes of tone from the tragic to the playful, alternating between sombre scenes in which the taciturn Artemis listens to her relatives’ heartless comments about her father’s condition and moments of clowning: playing an intense game of charades with friends; joking around with artificial limbs and eyes in a wheelchair shop; dancing wildly with a garden hose. Continuous with these are scenes in which, as communication with the apparently hostile Paris is well-nigh impossible, it is through solo play-acting that Artemis gains access to her father – mimicking him trying to light a cigarette with shaking hands or crawling on her front, pretending to have lost the use of her legs – and to her own submerged feelings about him. At one point she re-enacts both sides of an argument they had when she was a teenager, eventually breaking down in tears.

Lentzou has acknowledged Akerman as an influence, alongside Gus Van Sant, Chris Marker and John Cassavetes, whose preference for improvization over staging she admires. The material for the film draws on her own experience, and she has explained that her way of “metabolising” this personal material into film by obtaining an “honest” performance from the remarkable Sofia Kokkali (who has appeared in some of Lentzou’s previous short films ) was to “throw the actress into it” with as little preparation as possible. This approach is exemplified by a scene in which Artemis, playing around at the wheel of her father’s car in aimless frustration, ends up crashing into the garage wall. Lentzou sums it up succinctly: “One car, one wall, one actress, one take.”

After the crash Artemis discovers in the glove compartment of her father’s car a hidden truth about him – something that makes him, along with her, a casualty of the ultra-traditional, patriarchal nature of Greek society. There is the suggestion of a psychosomatic and even psychosexual dimension to Paris’s autoimmune disease, in which “the system attacks the system”. And alongside this, in the realm of the mythic, the sense of an unseen cosmic pull brought about by the moon, featured insistently on screen and revolving around the earth just as Artemis revolves constantly around her father. She learns to support and lead Paris to help him walk, a slow, difficult process shown uncompromisingly in lengthy sequences. The whole film is like a protracted bout of awkward dancing, a quest for the release of the movement that ends, miraculously, with an embrace.

Muriel Zaghais a freelance writer and broadcaster on the visual arts

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