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Home Is Where the Films Are: How Current Cinema Represents Modern Domestic Life

In this essay from the 2017 Locarno Critics Academy, a look at how several new films represent private spaces.

mrs fang

“Mrs. Fang”

To the credit of the Locarno Festival, the films in the 2017 selection don’t waste time trying to tell universal stories that transcend their time and place. Falling in love varies depending on the social conditions behind it, as Xu Bing’s found-footage film “Dragonfly Eyes” aptly proves, while weaving a story about obsession and surveillance in contemporary China. Similarly, working in a mine in Serbia has a wholly different routine than mining for gold in Suriname, as Ben Russell’s latest documentary “Good Luck” takes its time to show. Even something as widespread as the notion of the work/life balance varies considerably in films from Locarno coming from different parts of the world and set in different milieus, and enough of these films either circumvent or contradict traditional depictions of the home.

It’s telling that new films in which the home is a sooth place are either set in different eras (Todd Haynes’ “Wonderstruck”) or built upon obviously artificial narrative conventions (Raúl Ruiz and Valeria Sarmiento’s “The Wandering Soap Opera”). In contemporary stories, even those which are unabashedly formulaic like Serge Bozon’s “Mrs. Hyde,” the social space drains more of the characters’ energy than domestic tension or bliss.

In “Mrs. Hyde,” Isabelle Huppert’s teacher fails to earn the respect of her adolescent students, until through a freak accident in the science lab she turns into an imposing, fire-encrusted woman with an ethereal voice. The fact that the initial Jekyll/Hyde metaphor of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel was about controlling primal impulses — it referred to the very human urges that are unfit for the social space — is a further argument to the same case: if these films point to anything in our society, it is that society continues to stifle individualistic expression, and there are fewer private spaces where it can flourish.

Hlynur Pálmason’s factory-set “Winter Brothers,” a stylized Nordic thriller with a social conscience, displaces the protagonist’s private dissatisfaction into his suspicious behavior at the workplace. His house is merely a place where he is brewing (quite literally!) his daily social conduct. He is what he does, for all his longing and attempts of self-definition through a romance that never materializes – except in a chilling hallucination scene where all his repressed emotions spill over, only to point out how unlikely it is that this harmonious union of his dreams will ever happen.

winter brothers

“Winter Brothers”

Sometimes the tension between domestic harmony and upward mobility is explicit, like in the Georgian film “Scary Mother,” where the protagonist feels stuck for having familial duties, even if her family is a fairly successful one. Although it’s not a very complex depiction of the pressure that women are more likely to feel when working on their personal projects, it does reflect on a wider aspiration of recent films to show how the idealization of the wife/mother role can be confining, since it discourages them from any private aspirations. The writer in “Scary Mother” seems to be content with her family life, although slightly distracted from it, until it is revealed that her novel’s possibly autobiographical main character has ardent dreams of leaving home.

“Scary Mother” invests more resources than other films in the Locarno selection into depicting her home as a comfortable one – a small, but colorful apartment in a dreary city, which she later leaves for her friend/editor’s unfurnished and ascetic guest room. When the heroine departs from home, she trades off her well-being for freedom, but if her new environment is a step up, it doesn’t look like it. However, there are very few cases of protagonists settling down in a cozy place in the stories of this festival – such aspirations seem to belong to a different world or a different era.

Where to find the sense of home, then? Where do people gather in one place and act like family, or at least like neighbors? The grim reality visible between the lines (or frames) in Locarno’s 2017 films is that home is a refuge, a place to retreat when the social game becomes tiresome. The old people’s home in Shevaun Mizrahi’s documentary “Distant Constellation” is a place where its residents can finally find their peace after a life of hardship. Even more poignantly, Wang Bing’s documentary “Mrs. Fang” — which won the Golden Leopard — shows the eponymous lady not only stuck at home but unable to leave her bed. A woman in her seventies and already in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s disease, she barely reacts to the presence of her relatives and the sound of the TV set in the room. An unexpected eye movement or a gesture with her wrist inject her with the occasional mysterious sign of agency.

The filmmaker takes pains to give a full sense of her environment: a room with two beds, one fridge, one TV, the latter only present through sound and the light it throws on the people watching it. Her family comes to spend time with her, even if it’s unclear whether she acknowledges their presence, all gathered together in this small space which she isn’t lucid enough to leave. Her house is very much the traditional definition of a home, where people who have known her for all their lives give her the protection and the affection she needs. But if this is the strongest instance of familial support among the best of this year’s arthouse films, it’s a little troubling that it’s also so downbeat.

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