Sole (Italian, Polish) opens in a nightclub. There’s pounding music, laser lights. Everyone’s dancing except sad-faced Ermanno, who’s alone, with a drink. Soon, we see the reason for the sad face. Lena, all of 22, is pregnant. Is she the wife? The girlfriend? A one-night stand? All we know is that there’s no love between them. Ermanno takes Lena to an apartment and says, “This is your room.” He retreats to his. What’s the deal, here? Why are the conversations between them so functional? (“I need shampoo and stuff.”) Why does Ermanno barely seem to care when Lena says she feels the baby kick? Soon, it becomes clear that they are practically strangers. Ermanno’s uncle, who’s sterile, wants a child. Who better than a nephew to help build a family?
In the press notes, director Carlo Sironi says, “Ever since I was young, I have been wondering what my life would be like if I became a father: what does becoming a father, becoming a parent, mean? Obviously, it has nothing to do simply with giving birth to a creature with one’s genetic traits, but rather with a change of attitude concerning one’s prospects, one’s expectations.” Sole is an attempt to answer these questions. In the usual “having a baby” drama, it all begins with two people getting to know one another. But in this tough, unsentimental film, the relationship builds in reverse, coloured by a calming blue palette. The colour is everywhere — in the shots of the sea, on wallpaper, on furniture, on Lena’s jacket… It isn’t the colour of gender, though. The baby is a girl. By the time Ermanno changes a diaper, he’s almost… human.
The Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín (The Club, Neruda) is one of the most exciting talents on the festival circuit — and at least a part of Ema (Spanish) lives up to the hype. Enigmatically billed as a “meditation on the human body, dance and motherhood”, the film revolves around Ema and Gaston, wife and husband, dancer and choreographer. The stage production at the beginning gives us an idea of what kind of dance it is. Something enormous and blazing and seemingly radioactive — like the sun — is projected on a large screen, and in the foreground, a number of dancers flail about in semi-geometric formations. You could call it modern dance, but it could just as easily have come from the future. You could say the same about the film, which raises the bar on the avant-garde. It looks like something you’d see in a laboratory rather than the big screen.
Experimental narratives are the hardest to review on festival deadlines, but for starters, here’s the story. Ema and Gaston adopted a young boy named Polo and gave him up for re-adoption when they found they could not deal with him. A dead cat is found in a freezer. Half of Ema’s sister’s face is burned. Polo is responsible, but then, look at the film’s first image. Ema stands with a flamethrower, watching a traffic light burn. Like mother, like son. How can you blame Polo? In the film’s funniest scene, a child services worker screams at the couple, whose avant-garde life and work she finds abominable. Maybe she’s right. Maybe they are not fit to be parents. Just look at them. They say “I love you” to each other, but when Gaston asks for a quickie, Ema says, “You are like a human condom. You will never give me a son. A real one.” These aren’t mere words. They’re a well-aimed kick in the sterile Gaston’s balls.
For the longest time, Polo stays in the background. He is — rather, his absence is — more of a catalyst for Ema’s behaviour. She is the very embodiment of jagged-edged female freedom. (Gaston, too, stays in the background, which is probably a good thing, given that Gael García Bernal is horribly miscast.) Ema acts out. She finds out Polo’s new adoptive parents and sleeps with both of them, on separate occasions. These sex scenes are filtered through a green light. But when Ema sleeps around with several men and women, the light turns blue. Ema is stylised and abstracted to a fault. I found it impossible to get close to Ema, especially when she enters Polo’s school and runs off with him. The closing portions morph into a telenovela high on drugs. I laughed, but I wasn’t sure I should have been laughing. Larraín may not be giving us much to go on, but at least, he isn’t playing it safe.
Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s Madre (Spanish, French) is far more conventional, far more affecting. Elena, who’s divorced, is fending off nosy “seeing anyone?” questions from her mother, when she gets a call no mother should get. Her six-year-old son says his father has abandoned him on a beach. Which one? He can’t say. What follows is a single extraordinary take, a masterpiece of domestic choreography, as a panicked Elena and her equally panicked mother take turns on the phone, while also trying to reach out for help. But Elena’s in Spain. The beach is in France. The boy is lost. The film moves ahead by 10 years. Elena has moved to France. She works as the manager of a restaurant by the sea. You can see why. She lost her boy on one such beach. This is penance.
I was reminded of the Michelle Pfeiffer-starring The Deep End of the Ocean, also about a mother who loses her son. As in that film, Elena sees a teenager, Jean, who resembles her lost little boy. An odd kind of friendship blossoms. We know why Elena wants to spend so much time with Jean, but does he? Is the story heading to an icky place? Madre is a little too drawn out for its own good, but it’s a powerful portrait of how grief can warp a soul. This material, in Hollywood, might have resulted in a thriller. (Remember The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, about a psycho-mommy who lost her child and wanted revenge?) But this is a gentle tale of coming to terms. I was especially moved by Elena’s boyfriend, an extraordinarily patient man who keeps waiting for her to be fully his. But how can she, when she herself is incomplete? That’s life, though. It doesn’t always give you everything, and we have to decide whether to settle for parts or keep waiting for the whole.