I love it when a film refuses to fit into a genre box. Madre could’ve been a Hitchcock-derivative thriller of a kidnapped child and stolen identity. It could’ve been a saccharine or lachrymose tale of the Power of Forgiveness, or an icky sexual drama of forbidden love between an older woman and a smitten adolescent. But thanks to its script co-written by director Rodrigo Sorogoyen and Isabel Peña, their film is none of those things, and therefore much more.
Best I can tell, Sorogoyen used his Oscar-nominated short film of the same name for the opening of his feature. In her Madrid apartment, Elena (Marta Nieto) is preparing for an outing with her mother (Blanca Apilánez), when she receives a phone call from her six year old son Iván. On vacation with his dad, Iván discloses that he’s scared and alone on a beach, as his father left him to retrieve something from his car. As the call cuts in and out, and father doesn’t return, mother and son grow frantic.
This sequence is filmed to feel like a single take, initially in long shots down hallways decorated with Iván’s artwork. As the tension rises, the camera slowly advances towards a close-up of Marta’s face, till her phone call with her son cuts out for the last time.
Madre then jumps ahead ten years. Admirably embodying the maxim of “show, don’t tell” – a consistent element here – it’s implied that Marta moved a decade ago to the seaside town where her son was last seen, in the futile hope of finding traces of him. We observe a typical day for Marta, deftly managing a seaside restaurant and disco, before falling asleep to the television in an apartment bearing little imprint from her lone occupancy.
Disruption arrives in the person of Jean (Jules Porier). A confident, shaggy redhead, Elena sees in him how Iván might appear at that age. She follows him home and spies on his family. The next morning, Jean comes into her restaurant. After ordering a coffee, he playfully confronts Elena for shadowing him, signaling that her attention is a welcome break from his mundane adolescence.
Most of Madre concerns itself with the growing intimacy between Elena and Jean. Elena’s long-distance boyfriend doesn’t comprehend it, but jealously perceives a threat, to a relationship where the attachment is already lopsided. Jean’s parents, who seem like decent-enough Parisian bourgeoisie, are initially warm towards Elena before becoming increasingly alarmed.
As I mentioned earlier, in his fifth feature and fourth collaboration with Peña, Sorogoyen is too smart to permit a devolution into cliché. To be sure, there is an oedipal frisson at play, and Madre toys enough with our genre expectations to make us wonder if Jean is Iván, or if Elena will lose Jean in a history-repeating manner.
But at its heart, Madre is a clear-eyed consideration of a grief of the worst sort, and how it becomes its own form of madness. Yet here again, our expectations are defied. Instead of feeling somber or depressing, there’s a strange serenity to this film.
I attribute this tone to Madre’s visual style and its central performances. Set on the French Bay of Biscay coast (to the southwest of Bordeaux, near the Spanish border), it’s framed as a gorgeous region of barely-tamed beaches and windswept grasslands. Sorogoyen cushions his dramatic scenes with images of pounding surf, as if to convey that human events of consequence are ephemeral, next to the endless cycles of nature.
In Madre’s distinctive style, even its abrupt temporal cuts feel less jarring than they ought, blended as they are with Sorogoyen’s wide angle scenes, close-ups, and long distance shots. Only once did his technique seem showoffy and distracting.
Just as important is Marta Nieto’s superb performance as Elena, one of the year’s best. Thanks to Nieto’s expressive subtlety, Elena’s grief percolates under the surface, showing itself in the emotional distance she maintains with her boyfriend and her quiet distress in large social gatherings. She defends against her fragility through her competence in managing a hopping business establishment.
As Jean, young Jules Porier brings a charming frankness, wit, and warmth to his portrayal. It’s easy to grasp why Elena is drawn to this stand-in for her lost son. We’re given less to understand Jean’s attraction to Elena – does her affectionate attention offset the relative neglect of a middle child by too-busy parents? – but this doesn’t matter for the film’s ultimate success.
With its story and characters, Madre never feels predictable or implausible, a laudable balancing act. This is the first film I’ve seen by this director or with Marta Nieto; I plan to make sure it isn’t my last.
(Madre is available to rent through arthouse websites like this one.)
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )