Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Here’s my review of the Spanish film Madre, which has a local revenue-sharing tie-in with SIFF.
I get this feeling that we’re not supposed to approve of the frequent use of the wide-angle lens in movies. Even if the style turns up in serious films by the likes of Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick, there’s something fishy (and possibly fisheye) implied about the too-giddy deployment of the wide-angle look, unless, say, it’s used for the zany weirdness of something like The Favourite.
I am guilty of being easily seduced by the wide-angle look, which I blame on childhood fascination with looking through the wrong eyeholes of a pair of binoculars and being transfixed by the distorted view. (Surely everybody had that experience? Maybe you grew out of it.) I think this may be one reason the early scenes in Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s Spanish film Madre are so transfixing, and unsettling; our frame of reference is screwy. The opening sequence (15 minutes or so) is made up of just three shots, I think: an opening view of a ghostly-empty beach, the wide angle making it look especially vacant (as though from a child’s point of view), and two shots inside a Madrid apartment. The middle apartment shot takes up 98 % of the sequence.
In it, we watch a young divorced mother named Elena (Marta Nieto) take a telephone call from her six-year-old son, who says he has been separated from his father on a beach. As Elena grows increasingly frantic, the boy reports that a stranger is ominously approaching him. This skillfully manipulative section of Madre was apparently the entirety of a 2017 Oscar-nominated short film that went by the same title. The feature expansion has taken Sorogoyen in an unexpected direction from this super-charged and frankly show-offy opening gambit.
After that opening, we see the beach again, populated now, and after a long pause, the words TEN YEARS LATER emerge, chillingly, on the screen. Elena is working as a barmaid at the French beach where her child vanished, still haunting the scene of the crime. She has a patient boyfriend (Alex Brendemühl), and may be on the verge of moving away from this doomed location.
Then she sees a teenager, Jean (Jules Poirier), who’s probably about the same age her son would be. Whether she actually believes he might be the son, her fixation on Jean creates the unpredictable tensions that make up the remainder of the film, which utterly alters the tone and of the opening scene. I think it’s clear she doesn’t believe it’s really him—she sees early on that Jean is a member of a French family that visits the coast every summer—but she can’t help watching Jean with maternal affection, albeit charged by a ferocity that comes from having her own natural experience of seeing a son grow up taken away from her.
This is an interesting idea for a movie. Somewhere in the background is the specter of Jonathan Glazer’s Birth, with some similarly uncomfortable results. Sorogoyen favors long takes, which creates suspenseful effects in many scenes, except when it feels like a stunt (as in a scene where Elena finds herself in a car with three men after a night of drinking with intention). At other times, he knows how to use that eerie wide-angle mojo to cut between two people in tense conversation, notably the moment when Jean’s mother (Anne Consigny) comes to Elena’s workplace to ask her, in a roundabout and polite way, what exactly a 39-year-old woman is doing hanging around with a 16-year-old kid.
I can’t shake the feeling that Madre is a little too clever for its own good (even the opening credits are grabby, all clumped together on a single screen). But its slow pace, its unsettling frames and feel for bleary resort-town mornings, and Nieto’s grim performance all combine to create a mood that’s difficult to shake.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.