“Pour moi qui suis issue d’un univers familial plutôt matriarcal, je pouvais y mettre beaucoup de ma propre vie, parler des rapports mère-filles qui m’ont structuré ou destructuré…”
What made me choose this film for our October film group session? I forget but I know I had decided on it before watching Mum and Me. It is pure coincidence that both films feature the trio of Grandmother, Mother and adult Daughter. It is pure coincidence that both show a very rare image of the relationships between the three generations. It is pure coincidence that both directors are female documentary makers.
I showed Since Otar left… at the Phoenix in Oct 2009 and the Lexi and the film group in 2010. I blogged about it on November 1st 2009. I reported that the discussion at the Phoenix did not touch on the relationships between the women but focused on the relationship between France and Russia and Georgia’s independence. At the Lexi I introduced the film pointing out the women’s relationships and the mise-en-scene and there were more comments about the relationships and none about Georgia/France.
None of the present film group had seen the film before. This time, in my introduction I stayed with the generalities of the family melodrama. The first reaction was a general agreement that we experienced personally our mothers favouring our brothers. One surprising fact was that some women thought that French was the only language spoken. The damaging effect of secrets, but also their necessity in some circumstances, the three women as metaphor for the history of Georgia, and the characterisation of the old woman were talked about.
These reactions brought to me the impossibility of describing a film in a few sentences and the many factors that influence film assessment. What I failed to do is report the film’s reception, reviews, critiques and academic publications. Rotten Tomatoes shows a 98% score but I could only trace three academic papers in English and one chapter in Visions of Ageing (Images of the Elderly in Film, Amir Cohen-Shalev) about the film. In French I discovered unanimous praise by reviewers and in-depth academic analyses. A 24 pages document is aimed at film education in secondary schools and film clubs. Apart from the Critics Week Award in Cannes the film won other awards and nominations and was shown at International Film Festivals. It was not distributed in the UK and was only shown on BBC4.
It is described as a film about absence, a film about a dysfunctional family, a film about grief, about secrets and lies, about exile, about double identity, about Georgia and France, about a culture of denial and deceit. It is recommended to be shown in secondary schools for the themes of exile and lies, in philosophy classes for the connection memory/idealisation and in media study for the construction of the narrative. The acting of the three women is highly praised.
What I see in this film is a very sensitive, delicate, rich account of the lives and relationships between three generations of women that challenges the usual melodrama genre. As in the past with the classics I find it impossible to write succinctly and can only offer my personal reading as an old woman. The three characters, Eka the grandmother, Marina the daughter and Ada the granddaughter live in Tblisi. Otar the son, brother and uncle has gone to Paris to find work. He dies in an accident but Eka is not informed and she is deceived by regular letters written by Ada. After a mild heart attack, Eka decides to go to Paris to see her son before she dies. She finds out the truth. She pretends to Marina and Ada that Otar is gone to the USA. Ada stays in Paris.
The title Depuis qu’Otar est parti… tells us what the film is about. The man is gone, what happens next? What happens next is that in the absence of the male body, three women’s lives are seen through women’s eyes. Their different backgrounds, their different points of view, their love and their disagreements, their trajectory at an important moment in their lives are expressed in powerful cinematic terms. All the themes referred to in the academic papers above are present as they are in real life. This is a unique film about three women of different generations and I will look at it from the point of view of a grandmother.
Ebert was enthralled by the film: “Since Otar Left tells a story of conventional melodrama, and makes it extraordinary because of the acting”. I would like to demonstrate that beyond the acting, the film is extraordinary because of the director Bertuccelli’s woman gaze, and her documentary experience. I will examine the first 20 minutes to give a few examples of her director’s skill which permits the actors to give such nuanced but powerful performances. I will then look at the story and assume my readers have seen the film.
Some general remarks: The film’s tone is gentle. There is a very marked general feel of contrasts. The colour palette is warm except for occasional bright red touches. Three of these occur in scenes of intense feelings: one after Ada’s first sexual experience, one on the Ferris wheel where Eka enjoys her first feeling of liberation and the sustained shot of the door of the flat where Eka learns that Otar is dead. There are nearly as many scenes in daylight as there are of night scenes. The night scenes are in private space. The cramped interiors reflect the relationships between the women. Sometimes there is proximity when Ada and Marina make up their shared bed and it is time for intimate conversation. Sometimes there is separation in different planes when the three women are engaged in their own private activities or disagreements. The daylight scenes show the public sphere often in long shots: the street, the post office, the official buildings, the countryside in Tbilisi and the dilapidated blocks and desolate environment of a Paris poor quarter. Georgian or light modern music also contribute to the soundtrack. Silence and noise are used to convey internal states. Although the style of the film is described as documentary, the director gives the viewers time to reflect on the characters’ internal thoughts and feelings by her use of sustained close-ups of faces. On a more conceptual level the complex issues of the use of secrets and lies in a family context are exposed.
Exposition : The first scene shows Eka choosing a cake in a teashop *. This is followed by a shot of the three women sitting in silence with appropriate soundtrack of light music. In the next 20 minutes of the film Bertuccelli establishes with surprising dense mise-en-scene the characteristics of this little family. What do we learn during this establishing part of the film?
Eka is an old woman with white hair, a dowager’s hump, a lazy eye and bad vision. She has a daughter Marina, a son Otar and a granddaughter Ada. She likes gardening. She speaks fluent French and is fond of French literature. Although Otar is not present he is the most important person in her life. She lives through his phone calls, letters and gifts of money and maintains his room in the dacha with his guitar and bicycle as a special place. She regrets the Soviet regime .
Marina is a beautiful woman. Trained as an engineer she runs a stall in the market with her ex-soldier lover Tenguiz. She often looks tense and unhappy. She seems to be the breadwinner and the homemaker in restricted financial resources. She is resentful of the attention her mother gives to Otar. She expresses her bitterness about the past Soviet regime.
Ada is an energetic looking student who studies French. She is in charge of fetching Otar’s letters from the Post Office that we visit with her. She has an admirer who is dreaming of leaving the country but does not seem to be attracted to him. She is not interested in Georgia’s political past.
What is the relationships between these three women? The first thing to notice is that in the confined space of the flat the three women have equal and independent presence. Eka comes alive when the phone rings, Marina does the housework and asks Ada to help. Ada’s response is No I have work to do. Eka watches television, Marina listens to the radio and Ada her tape recorder. The three women talk in French, Russian and Georgian, and this reflects not only their different cultural backgrounds but also their interactions. “Eka and Ada speak French the language that establishes their special bond. Marina refuses the French because she rejects her brother and the Paris of dreams. She does not approve of those who leave Georgia. About Russian and Georgian, it is a matter of politics and generations: the grandmother speaks Russian. It is the official language she learnt at school. But Marina tends to use Georgian because Russian is the language of the oppressor”. (Bertucelli quoted in Synopsis sept-oct 2003 – my translation). The political element of the three women’s expressed opinions is more indicative of their differing life experiences than strong political affiliation. The theme of lies in Marina’s experience of the Soviet regime is hinted at in her conversation with her lover.
There are tensions between Eka and Marina shown when Eka complains on the phone to Otar and the obvious resentment of Marina after the phone call when Eka is full of loving concern for Otar and criticism of her. Ada here defuses the situation. Eka and Ada have the very special grandmother/granddaughter relationship, a loving relationship devoid of mother/daughter tensions. Ada reads Otar’s letters and Proust to her grandma. She massages her feet before bedtime. The quality of the Marina and Ada relationship is shown in an intimate fun conversation, but also in Ada’s response to Marina’s gift of a dress. Ada is appreciative of the gesture but affirming of her own identity: It is not my style.
A phone call when Eka is away at the dacha ends this establishing section. Nico announces that his friend Otar suffered a serious accident.
Otar’s death, the deception : In the rest of the film we note the same mix of documentary information about Tblisi – its buildings and surrounding, its streets, its bureaucratic offices – and very intimate emotional moments beautifully directed and acted. After the visit to the offices where Marina and Ada are told of Otar’s death they descend the escalator in silence. The only noise is the whirring of the machinery. The women’s faces express shock. On the platform they keep this restraint until they let go and start crying during the very loud noise of an oncoming train and one can hear Ada sobbing. They comfort each other hugging and touching each other’s faces. The device of using sound to express violent emotions is used again. Marina and Ada are sitting in the market looking devastated listening to Tenguiz reading aloud the official letter announcing the circumstances of Otar’s death and his burial. At the end of the reading, over the sound track of generalised market sounds, emerges a trader’s shout that sounds like a cry of pain. This is followed by a cacophony of car klaxons. Marina grabs the letter and scrunches it. The conversation that follows shows a disagreement between Ada we must tell her and Marina I cannot hurt her. Cut to the dacha where Eka draws the curtains, shut the doors, the gate and stands still in contemplation.
There is an exquisite scene on Eka’s return from the dacha that stimulates the viewer to think about the situation. Eka is being served a snack. Marina comes and sits opposite her, Ada kneels so her face is lower than her mother’s. They both sit expressionless and silent and they exchange looks. Are they going to tell Eka? But as it occurs sometimes in life, the decision is forced upon them when Eka smiling and happy says: there is something I would really like to do, to write to Otar, I have lots of things to tell him. Marina replies take a rest and we will write later. Both daughter and granddaughter leave the room hurriedly and Eka looks puzzled but smiling. Somehow we know that the decision of concealing the death has been taken.
Consequences after the deception:
Eka: As a mother I cannot help thinking that when Nico visits and colludes sensitively in the lie, Eka does suspect that all is not well with her son. She has expressed before that life must be difficult for him. Trying to find a reason for the lack of phone calls from Otar that lasted 7 months she asks Nico: “Has he got a girlfriend ?” The response: “Not a steady one” does not reassure her. She expresses later that she thinks that Otar’s life is not as he described in his letters and although he might be embarrassed by her visit she is determined to go and see him. Maybe her heart attack acted as a warning? In the absence of Marina and Ada at the dacha, she cannot wait to get ready and go out, enquire about the sale of her precious French books, take some time off smoking on a fairground ride and finally declare to Marina and Ada when they are back that she bought tickets and obtained visas to go and visit her beloved son. In Paris, Eka searches for Otar and Bertuccelli gives us an amazing image of her heroic perseverance in the soulless Parisian dilapidated buildings of a poor popular quarter so far from Otar’s descriptions. The stunned effect of the loss of her son are filmed and acted very effectively. First a close up of her sitting on the stairs. Then she is seen, walking in a long shot from above, a tiny figure in the bare environment of roads and metro, resting on a bench and then walking again. Cut to Marina and Ada in the hotel and Eka arrives looking composed.
Marina: Can we detect a more loving Marina after the death of her brother and later? She seems more open, less antagonistic and even shares laughs with her mother. She dismisses Eka’s worries about the unhappiness and health of Ada. Observe the matter-of-fact way that the subject of common conflicts between mother and daughter of so many melodramas is dealt with in this film. Marina is washing her mother’s hair over the sink. Eka: “You’ve never loved your daughter properly”. Marina: “Neither have you”. There are no explosions just the mention of not uncommon feelings. In a later scene where her recollections of Otar in the past differ from her mother’s (such a familiar scene in family gatherings) she opens up and divulges that her husband who died in Afghanistan only wrote to her twice in two years while she wrote to him every week. A fortune teller gave her news about him weeks after he died she declares looking at Ada as if excusing herself about keeping the secret. We know by Ada’s facial expression that it is the first time that Marina talks about the loss of her husband and her own loss and grief. She is also more demonstrative to her boyfriend: “I wish I was in love with you”. She panics at the thought of going to Paris but has to give way. We understand that she has come to terms with the loss of her brother when on his simple grave she utters: “She has sold everything for This ?”.
Ada: shows the strain of the deception that she did not agree with. She does not eat, loses interest in her schooling and takes on a badly paid job translating for a ceramic factory. On the other hand she starts rather enjoying the writing of letters and gets taken over by the fantasy of Paris, its famous sites and the intellectual life of the Left Bank. She becomes more dissatisfied with her life. Having invested her creativity in writing about Paris, she is overwhelmed with joy when Eka announces that they will be going. She goes outside jubilant and stands in the rain.
Relationships: Ada’s rebellion against her mother’s decision occurs after Eka suffers a heart attack and is in recovery. The equivalent of the violent explosion between mother and daughter in classical melodrama is Ada’s calm accusation and refusal to accept her mother’s resentments and bitterness: “Its over I am through with lying, I’ve had it……..these are your fears and your whims. Deal with them.”
The tension between Ada and her mother over the deception increases and gets resolved when Eka announces that she has bought tickets for the three women to go to Paris. Roles are reversed. Marina now wants to tell her mother that her son has died worried about a useless trip while Ada not unselfishly wants them to go. Again the conflict is resolved in a quiet way by Ada refusing to cooperate with her mother and telling her : “you want to tell her? ” opening the door to Eka’s room “go and tell her”. From then on there is a clear shift in the relationships. Eka is on her own looking for her son, her grief is private. Taking her daughter and granddaughter into consideration before making an important decision she comes back to them with the invention that Otar has left for the USA. They proceed to visit Paris. Her recognition that Ada was writing the letters is in the all-knowing look she gives her when they are waiting for the bus to the airport. In the airport Ada decides to stay and in the silent communication through glass partitions indicates that she will phone. This time it is Marina who is in tears and Eka who comforts her.
I have tried to extract from this extremely complex film some of the elements that make it a unique women’s film. The women seen here have a past, a social background, a social life ( I have not mentioned the party or the two minor supporting characters). They live in particular space and time. Each one has her own needs, priorities and aspirations influenced by her experiences and close ties with others. As opposed to the classical melodrama, where the social elements have to be inferred, the film is very specific in time and place but very general in the domain of women’s lives and connections. As opposed to the classical melodrama, women’s lives and conflicts are treated without histrionics, or excess. There are few films where the old woman is integrated in a near indivisible social whole. There are few films that look at the relationship between an old woman and an adult granddaughter. There are few films where we see an old woman dealing with a major family problem with creativity determination and concern for others.
For an English speaking audience it is important to signal before viewing the device of using three different languages.
* The image of an old woman savouring a cake is a cliché of the old woman in film. Tatie Danielle, La Vielle Femme Indigne come to mind.