top of page

BFI London Film Festival 2022, Dispatch #7: Casa Susanna, The Eternal Daughter, Alcarras

Casa Susanna, Sebastien Lifshitz
Casa Susanna

A few simple elements is all it takes to make a great movie, if you know which simple elements to take. Sometimes, one of those elements is time. It took Sebastien Lifshitz some time to recognize the elements he had the power to wield and weave into great movies. He'd dabbled in documentary before 2012's Les Invisibles, the first (and finest) of a string of universally excellent, almost universally queer-themed docs, of which Casa Susanna is the latest. It combines the simple elements of honesty, openness, patience, sensitivity, and access, woven into a humble, highly affecting portrait of a chosen family in a chosen home. Its subjects stress their ordinariness, its locations are plain and unremarkable - it's a movie built out of seemingly unexceptional blocks that, together, form an exceptional whole, a cinematic Casa Susanna, perhaps.

Lifshitz engages with his subjects in such a direct, unforced manner that scenes of their own interactions feel as close to literally placing the viewer in the actual, physical scene as any documentary I can recall. His interviews are equally illuminating, the result of an evidently earnest, fundamentally compassionate filmmaking process that any other filmmaker, whether working in documentary or not, ought to study. His respect for the artistry of filmmaking is also terrific, with music cuts that suggest Lifshitz has been stalking my Spotify edited into montages and behind key sequences with exquisite attention to tone and musical cadence. Most impactful in Casa Susanna, though, is its admission of unknowability. It's a portrait in hindsight, with so few of those qualified to speak on its topics with authority still alive to do so, and even they admit there's so much they never knew and never could have known about their old friends. In acknowledging the depth and breadth of what it can never strive to express, Lifshitz's film thus acknowledges the depth and breadth of what it does express, and what it expresses with grace and gravity.

Carly-Sophia Davies, Tilda Swinton, The Eternal Daughter, Joanna Hogg
Carly-Sophia Davies and Tilda Swinton in The Eternal Daughter

I'm attending press screenings at LFF for everything I can, but catching a few strays at public screenings, which means the occasional filmmaker appearance pre-movie. Such was the case for The Eternal Daughter, where Joanna Hogg spoke of the necessity of creative constraints on artists, in response to a question on the artistic limitations that weren't so much imposed on this movie but actually begat it, in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic. Seems a few filmmakers were a tad too inspired by those limitations, and Hogg's among them - this isn't nearly as ambitious a project as The Souvenir's double bill, but it also isn't nearly as god, indeed as any of Hogg's previous work. It's a delicate, diaphonous little emotional rumination disguised as a ghost story, a personal story for Hogg of an edgy mother-daughter relationship as the former celebrates her birthday in the hotel that was once the country residence of her late aunt, and the latter attempts to write a screenplay about her. Distinct autobiographical touches abound, not least in Hogg's casting of lifelong friend Tilda Swinton in both leading parts, but as potent as they may be for her, they're unfortunately rudimentary for us, and The Eternal Daughter never develops them into anything as bold nor as complex as I know Hogg's capable of.

There are, of course, some marvellous little details. Hogg is experimenting further with a separation from her signature technique of storytelling through space and environment, exploring a more directly emotional style that's sadly quite ordinary here; the movie's strongest qualities are in its spatial and evironmental observations. A door slowly creaks to a close, but never quite reaches it - this occurs twice. Spaces - corridors, or a succession of rooms - are wandered through, exploring tentatively. Mirrors reflect images in full, and certain shots may have been reversed entirely, or maybe even staged as reflections? Hogg's a dab hand at all this, and I don't think she's wrong to experiment by straying from it, but she loses so much of her expressive capacity as a storyteller by looking ever further inward to tell a story that, without a stronger stylistic hook to assert itself, doesn't much matter to an outward audience.

Ainet Jounou, Alcarras, Carla Simon
Ainet Jounou in Alcarras

Some of the most significant moments in Carla Simon's Alcarras are spent watching people watching. Events unfold beyond their control, and it's not so much the events that matter (at least to us) but the impact those events have on those affected, and so it's them we watch. There's a deeply-ingrained respect for every single character in this large ensemble of leads, and even beyond the family at the centre of Simon's story; in her milieu, human beings have an integral dignity that makes simply observing them go about their simple lives worthy material for a feature film. And so we watch, and listen, and observe without judgement imposed upon us, but freely inferred by us. It's perhaps not as compelling as Simon might like it to be - her neo-neo-realism lacks the spark of originality her predecessors had to their advantage, though I've never cared much for their work either - but every moment and every scene is of value, and it's never mounted with anything less than total conviction.

There are themes being sifted through, too - it's not just a lazy look at the lives of others. The loss of traditional ways of life, even in the face of positive progression, is obvious; the generational transference of tyrannical masculinity is less so, but still pointed and potently felt. And if it's all pretty obvious, that's probably for the best, since Alcarras surely doesn't need some shocking, unexpected slant stamped on it for the sake of it. Would it make it a stronger movie? Maybe, but there's no use evaluating a movie on what it's not. On what it is, this is a pleasant, diverting drama that thrives on its own integrity and on the sense of honesty and authenticity informing its every gesture. Watching people watching does, in Carla Simon's careful control, make for a pretty good watch.


bottom of page