The gauzy blues and burnt oranges that make up the complementary color palette of Mathieu Amalric’s “Hold Me Tight” stand in stark contrast to one another, highlighting their differences while contributing to a sense of visual harmony. Orange safety vests pop against a bright blue sky, cobalt ink is written into a tangerine notebook, and a rust-colored 1978 AMC Pacer streaks through the blue-gray light of dawn. By definition, complementary colors are directly opposite one another on the color wheel, and when combined, cancel each other out to make white or black. In Amalric’s carefully constructed vision of a mother’s complicated separation from her family, two complementary and opposing versions of reality coexist alongside one another like puzzle pieces, working together to tell a single story.
The narrative threads seem connected at first, but as the film plays out they slowly begin to unravel. Clarisse (Vicky Krieps) is married with two children, whom she decides to leave one morning on an unexplained road trip. She plans her escape methodically, laying out breakfast for her son Paul (Sacha Ardilly) and daughter Lucie (Anne-Sophie Bowen-Chatet), and making a grocery list for her husband Marc (Arieh Worthalter). This scene, along with much of the film’s script, is directly inspired by “The Rain People,” Francis Ford Coppola’s 1969 road movie about a young wife who takes a sudden and extended break from married life. What she’s after is never quite clear, nor is it in “Hold Me Tight,” which adds to the air of mystery and confusion that permeates the film. “He’ll think I left for a week,” Clarisse explains to a stranger at a bar on the Spanish-French border. “Or a month, then three months, then six months, and then he’ll drop it.”
Slowly, however, little traces of fantasy emerge that muddle this story of motherly abandonment. As we cross-cut between Clarisse’s new life and her family’s daily routines without her, it becomes clear that these two stories are in dialogue with one another, inextricably linked in an almost magical call-and-response. “I’m inventing,” she tells herself as she writes in her journal, cigarette in hand, outside a gas station. “I imagine that I left.” No sooner is Clarisse explaining what Marc will tell the children about her departure than the words can be heard coming out of his mouth. “Going on a trip takes time,” they both say, Paul sitting on Marc’s lap as Lucie practices piano in the background, the perfectly layered sound design creating an otherworldly atmosphere. They begin to realize that she’s gone, and that their lives will go on without her. But what’s real and what’s imaginary is still far from certain.
When he talks about this project, Amalric, the French actor-turned-director, is bursting with energy, full of disparate and amusing references and inspiration that helped him to craft this bittersweet, ghostly work. The film is based on Claudine Galera’s play “I’m Coming Back from Afar,” but his influences run the gamut: Douglas Sirk, Manoel de Oliveira, “The Leftovers,” Sophie Calle, “Coco,” and more. In his previous directorial works like “Barbara” and “The Blue Room,” he’s shown an interest in the thin line between fantasy and reality, and how the stories we tell ourselves can gain power, to the point of becoming overpoweringly real. Here, he takes this phenomenon to even more extreme and literal ends.
In “Hold Me Tight,” each account is one side of the same coin, and it becomes less important which is real and which may be imaginary. Both Clarisse and her family cling to a version of reality where the other is still there, reaching out toward the other so far that they manage to almost reel them into their own story. In one sequence, Clarisse drunkenly sinks her face into a fish display’s bed of white ice chips just as her son submerges into a bath full of soft white bubbles, inconsolable after he’s discovered that his father threw away his mother’s toiletries and perfumes. “You threw mom away,” he screams. The two images touchingly speak to one another, bridging the divide through a shared feeling of grief.
By his account, Amalric wrote the script in a fit of tears, so moved by Galea’s material, a cornucopia of influences, and his own brushes with loss. And while the film is peppered with the melodrama that the director intended, it’s largely restrained by Krieps, who delivers a disarmingly vulnerable, yet understated performance that keeps the film grounded. Her wispy elegance is tempered by a clumsy charm as she lovingly strokes her daughter’s hair, or floats through the world in her newly-solo life. Her general state of dazed detachment gives weight to one particularly explosive outburst of anger and pain toward the film’s end, devastating in its cathartic confrontation with reality.
“Hold Me Tight” requires a fair amount of patience as each narrative plays out, and, as with Amalric’s previous projects, there can be points where one might wonder where it’s all going, or why classical concert pianist Martha Argerich is suddenly a prominent character in the plot. But those who stay invested will be rewarded with an honest and holistic vision — one that, in following each thread separately, speaks to the rupture that tragedy can bring, and our endless quest to put the pieces back together again.
“Hold Me Tight” is in theaters now.