Family Life (Vida de Familia)

Look what dragged in the cat.

(2017) Dramedy (Monument) Jorge Becker, Gabriela Arancibia, Bianca Lewin, Cristián Carvajal, Lucas Miranda, Adara Casassus. Directed by Alicia Scherson and Christián Jiménez

Most cultures in humanity revere the family. For the most part, we all love our families and would do anything for them. Those without families by circumstance or by choice are often objects of pity, sometimes of scorn but generally we don’t trust people who turn their backs on family. Of course there are those who yearn for a family of their own. We always want what we don’t have.

Bruno (Carvajal) is an academic – a professor of Chilean poetry at the University in Santiago. He has been invited to spend a semester teaching the subject in Paris and is taking his young family – wife Consuelo (Lewin) and daughter Sofi (Casassus) with him. He needs a housesitter for their posh apartment and at the funeral of his cousin he meets Martin (Becker), his relative’s son. Martin in addition to mourning his father is unemployed and has just broken up with his girlfriend who he continues to pine away for. Sympathetic, Bruno offers the job of watching his house and caring for his cat Mississippi while he’s gone.

Bruno is kind of diffident and melancholy. He strikes the family in different ways; Bruno characterizes him as “a little weird” while Consuelo is a little bit more compassionate. When Martin makes an awkward attempt to kiss her the night before they leave, she rebuffs him but is nonetheless oddly moved by the man. He is handsome and has a thing about black leather, but he is also unemployed, single and nearly 40. Not exactly a catch.

Once the family is gone, Martin seems content to just hang out around the house. He is lonely but yet is unmotivated to go out and do things. A housekeeper is hired to assist but he doesn’t really feel right letting her clean once a month but he pays her the money that Bruno left for her anyway. He tries on Bruno’s clothes and goes though the family’s things like a criminal investigator.

One day the cat is missing and Martin puts up flyers. He is annoyed later to find flyers for a lost dog pasted over his own. Irritated, he calls the number on the lost dog flyers and gives the person an earful. Eventually the dog owner, Pachi (Arancibia) or Paz as she’s called in the iMDB credits, and Martin meet. She’s a single mom, strong and forthright but she is attracted to Martin. At first it’s a sexual thing but as Martin begins to bond with her son Seba (Miranda) their relationship begins to change.

Martin convinces Pachi that he is the owner of the house; he had taken down the pictures that featured Bruno, leaving only pictures of Consuelo and Sofi. He explains that those are pictures of his ex-wife and daughter; the divorce was acrimonious and she had taken his daughter and was refusing to let him see her. At first Pachi is suspicious – he must have done something to deserve such treatment – but her heart overrides her good sense and she falls very hard for him.

Even with the impending return of the real owners of the home, Martin maintains the fiction and seems for the first time to be truly content. Still, cracks begin to form in the facade as plans are made to introduce him to Pachi’s family. How far will he take the charade and what will happen when Pachi discovers the truth?

Scherson and Jiménez have directed three other movies each, although this is their first project as a unit. This is a much more quiet film than some of Scherson’s previous efforts. It is based on Alejandro Zamba’s book (Zamba did the initial adaptation which was then refined by the directors who are also given co-writing credit) and with nearly all of the action taking place in a single apartment, there’s a bit of a stage-y feel to it.

There is a definite sense of humor here although it is not broad or filled with pratfalls. It is more of a subtle sense of humor, the way old friends sit back and reflect on the absurdities of life. That is very much within the Latin temperament although those not familiar with Latin culture might be surprised, given that the comedies that come out of Latin countries are very often overly broad and slapstick.

But this isn’t strictly speaking a comedy; there are some moments of genuine pathos such as a climactic encounter between two of the characters in which in a moment it is clear that both understand exactly what’s going on. The irony of the movie is that the perfect family life that Martin initially yearns for is not what’s happening for Bruno and Consuelo. They have reached a kind of uneasy understanding between the two of them, but the tension is clearly there; even Sofi notices it as she displays on a somewhat shocking note she leaves on her wall.

The performances here are uniformly strong, with Becker being the most notable. While the motivations of Martin are opaque at best and he is something of an enigma, Becker keeps the character grounded and while we often are scratching our head about Martin, because of Becker the character never feels unbelievable or far-fetched. His motivations may be suspect and at the end of the day he isn’t a very likable character despite all his charm, but you won’t soon forget him and that’s thanks to Becker primarily. He reminds me a little bit of a young Thomas Kretschmann which is nothing but praise.

There is an awful lot of sex in the movie and those who are offended by such things should be forewarned. The pacing is a little slower than American audiences typically like, although European audiences should have no trouble with it. There is a slice of life aspect to the film that I found attractive; the life may be a bourgeois one but it’s a valid life notwithstanding.

Overall this is a solid movie. It debuted at this year’s Sundance and at the recent Miami International Film Festival won the Knight Grand Jury Prize, a very prestigious award. It’s beginning a slow theatrical roll-out in cities around the country; keep an eye out for it if it plays near here you live. If you’re looking for something that is going to make you think a little bit about the place of family in your life and what the ideal family looks like – and how it almost never is the family you get – this should be right up your alley.

REASONS TO GO: The performances are naturalistic particularly by Becker. There is a sly almost gentle sense of humor that is more reflective than uproarious.
REASONS TO STAY: Martin as a character is a bit on the murky side.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes, some profanity, sexuality and graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in Scherson’s own apartment.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Borgman
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Amnesia

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