– VENICE 2022: Florian Zeller’s second feature film is an uncompromising statement about depression, generational trauma and parental responsibility towards their children
Zen McGrath, Laura Dern and Hugh Jackman in The Son
How do you approach a person you love and who suddenly behaves in an incomprehensible way? Florian Zeller explored the issue in The Father [+leggi anche:
intervista: Florian Zeller
scheda film], centered on a man with dementia. Also based on one of his plays by him, The Son [+leggi anche:
scheda film]presented in Competition at the Venice Film Festival, is not an exploration of any kind, but a strong and unequivocal statement.
The film opens with a portrait of domestic bliss: a mother, Beth (Vanessa Kirby), hums a tune to his child, while his father, Peter (Hugh Jackman), looks at it. This harmony, however, is quickly broken when Kate (Laura Dern), Peter’s ex-wife, knocks on their door and tells Peter she’s worried about their teenage son, Nicholas (Zen McGrath). Thus opens the scene of a film which, unlike The Father, proceeds not only in chronological but also discursive order, while Peter tries to resolve his son’s unhappiness with logic, reason and force. But all attempts at him fail. The film’s real discursive drive is not its pragmatic method of helping his son, but his complete failure: every move he makes makes Nicholas feel worse.
It almost seems like Zeller has ticked off all the examples of what not to say or do to a loved one in need listed in a manual titled “Helping Someone with Depression.” However, his well-constructed and didactic film avoids sounding like an extraordinary after-school because it’s not just about a parent mishandling their child’s mental health problems. By focusing on Peter, the film sets out to boldly – and perhaps controversially – reveal the very tangible roots of Nicholas’ depression.
They are present in the very first words spoken by Jackman: Peter reproaches the visibly distressed Kate, her callousness is particularly shocking after the tender opening scene. Soon, however, this moment of cruelty reveals itself to be part of a behavior: Peter emerges as a man with little patience for problems outside the office. As a father, he may initially seem better than many others, always facing life’s problems with optimism and never raising his voice. But when Peter adopts a conciliatory tone, he also plays down the concerns of others; he talks and acts like a politician, and he sure is well on his way to becoming one.
These character traits may not seem so dangerous. After all, others seem to handle Peter’s denial and desire for control well. But this too is an illusion. When Peter casually talks to Kate about his new wife and her baby, she breaks down in tears, hurt by their divorce more than he ever realized. “I didn’t mean to upset you,” he says; “I know,” she replies, smiling, even though her words have more of a tone of resignation than of forgiveness.
The theory that Nicholas may simply be struggling with the separation of his parents suddenly appears less trivial: more than a separation, Peter’s decision to leave was a disconcerting break with reality for Nicholas and Kate. The fact that Kate and Peter are now presenting themselves as ex-friendly is just another of Peter’s comfortable illusions in his well-managed existence of him. “I have the right to reinvent my life!” He says to his son.
Denial and Compromise: Is this what adulthood holds for Nicholas? At work, as Peter’s mind drifts to his son, he too begins to look like a frightened kid. When he makes a rare visit to his he father (Anthony Hopkins), a man even more insensitive than he, we understand that he was once, and perhaps still is, as lost as Nicholas.
The Son was produced by See-Saw Films and Film4. Cross City Films and Embankment Films are responsible for international sales.
(Translated from English by Alessandro Luchetti)
Photogallery 07/09/2022: Venice 2022 – The Son
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