WIDE ANGLE: FAMILY SECRETS

October 13, 2019

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Sanam Saeed, Mohammed Ahmed, Beo Raana Zafar, Aamina Sheikh and Adnan Malik in a scene from Cake, directed by Asim Abbasi
Sanam Saeed, Mohammed Ahmed, Beo Raana Zafar, Aamina Sheikh and Adnan Malik in a scene from Cake, directed by Asim Abbasi

Every year, many films based on almost-simmering sibling rivalry and tumultuous family reunions are made. But there are only a few of them that are able to unearth the underpinnings of the perpetual dimensions of these themes.

One of my most loved in this genre is Xavier Dolan’s 2016 epic shouting saga It’s Only the End of the World, which playfully toys with this genre and yields entrancing results of confrontational absurdism, such that I have never experienced before. It is a beguiling assault on the peak emotional sensibilities of an individual.

Much of the pain here is brought to the screen through its lead Gaspard Ulliel’s Louis and his disquieting pair of eyes. His sclera moist through most of the film’s runtime, his pupil capture the images of his family members with an intense, unsaid longing.

Secrets here, however, do not come to the surface. The unvoiced remains unvoiced. Grief is just mushroomed into something more aching and menacing. It is a nightmarish film that is bleakly pessimistic and is completely unapologetic for taking this approach.

The genre of family dysfunction weighed using Asim Abbasi’s Cake and Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World

But if we swing to the opposite direction of the same genre, we get a film like Pakistani filmmaker Asim Abbasi’s Cake (2018), a film of immense delight that unravels like a cake — built upon layers and, under each layer, a new aspect of family reunions is explored.

But in Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World, the bubbling pessimism towards the arc of life is clear. We see that Louis, our 34-year-old protagonist, is seriously ill and fatigued, sweating through the film and gasping for breath, but we are never clearly told about his health. And this makes the build-up towards the finale even more exhausting, more infuriating and more pulsating, burning with an angst that just cannot be expressed in words.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Abbasi frisks and frolics with the genre’s complexities.

Cake has a simple premise and a constricted timeline: Zara (Sanam Saeed), now divorced, returns home after 10 years to see her father (Mohammed Ahmed) who is not well and her mum (Beo Raana Zafar), who, for the time being, is doing quite well. Her return, like Louis’, digs up old wounds with her sister Zarene (Aamina Sheikh) — in Louis’ case, his brother, Antoine (played by veteran Vincent Cassel). In this journey, they are joined by their childhood friend Romeo (Adnan Malik) and their brother Zain (Faris Khalid). Louis, on the other hand, is joined by his mum (Nathalie Baye), his sister Suzanne (Léa Seydoux) and Antoine’s wife Catherine (Marion Cotillard).

Abbasi uses a light-at-heart atmosphere to build a safe sanctuary for his actors, and lets them dive into a deep well of emotions as the first half ends, conjuring up a storm only towards the end of the second half in an extended sequence where we see skeletons of the past come rattling out of closets.

Secrets do come out in the open. They are unravelled in this sequence — as mentioned above — where we see actors Saeed and Sheikh in almost invincible form, squabbling their way through the family home’s lounge to the backyard and then to the storeroom. And the result is a simmering cauldron of unresolved relationships, broken promises and familial regrets.

In these moments, Abbasi finds Freudian slips to record sequences that hint at truths we are often too afraid to accept or approach. He, through the eyes of his characters, like his contemporary Dolan, makes us conscious of unspoken love or smouldering hatred that the characters are trying to hide.

Abbasi’s understanding of human nature is emotionally layered, much like Dolan, and this is why he shows us — often using tight close-ups and long takes — people involved in verbal exchanges with acute empathy, and a sense of liberation.

We have to talk. We have to tell our stories. Even our fears are soothed as we talk about things that are unbearable to keep in our system. Speaking up is almost inevitable. But these directors use a different approach to bring their films to a satisfying end, with closure and without closure.

Also noticeable is the fact that Dolan, for the most of his film’s runtime, uses tight close-ups focusing on his characters’ moist faces, so much so that you can almost feel their sentiments, especially unsaid resentments that have accumulated a deep sense of guilt over 12 years — all the while Louis was away from home.

Louis’ return hits them all hard. Their wounds are still afresh. And his appearance scratches them. They bleed. But we don’t see the red, outside. The ache inside, however, is clearly manifested.

[Clockwise from left] Marion Cotillard, Vincent Cassel, Gaspard Ulliel, Léa Seydoux and Nathalie Baye in It's Only the End of the World, directed by Xavier Dolan
[Clockwise from left] Marion Cotillard, Vincent Cassel, Gaspard Ulliel, Léa Seydoux and Nathalie Baye in It's Only the End of the World, directed by Xavier Dolan

Dolan does not paint a dandy picture of this family. Right from the start he makes you feel the heat in the room where the family has gathered. His players, also, don’t take time to fully immerse themselves into the situational ruckus.

The commotion reaches to a crescendo in the finale where the family bids a rather chilling farewell to Louis: their last meeting, perhaps, a roaring rendezvous.

Like Louis declares in the film’s initial trailer:

“And when I tell them
That I’m going away?
Forever flawing their memories.
What, then?
Until the end of time?”

Louis reads this elegy for his predetermined death and it stays in the air as the film unspools at an unhurried — mostly meditating — pace and makes us experience his way towards an impending quietus.

As a common thread, both Abbasi and Dolan work on one aspect that is the recurring theme of their films: secrets don’t die.

We have to talk. We have to tell our stories. Even our fears are soothed as we talk about things that are unbearable to keep in our system. Speaking up is almost inevitable. But these men use a different approach to bring their films to a satisfying end, with closure and without closure.

While Abbasi brings his Cake to a near-perfect resolution as Saeed’s Zara finds ultimate peace in her life, seeking closure; on the other hand, Dolan upends the expectations of his viewers — perhaps this is why this film met such criticism — and forces them to embrace the worst, the unspeakable. What if the tables are turned when you put yourself out there and become more vulnerable? He challenges our expectations from him. And this is where he stands out, thus creating a film that works as a convincingly overpowering paradox of modern reality.

Abbasi’s Zara faces her past and brings her life story to a spontaneously uplifting point. But Dolan’s Louis looks even more drained and enervated by the end of the film, and the final confrontation is an almost unbearable, pressure cooker-like explosion of cathartic sadness; the end of the world for our Louis or not, we are left with this question. Until the end of time.

Published in Dawn, ICON, October 13th, 2019