Three generations of women reunite and come apart during one turbulent weekend in Barrage, a small and somewhat evocative second feature from Luxembourger writer-director Laura Schroeder (Schatzritter).
The fact that one of those woman is Isabelle Huppert and the other, her real-life daughter Lolita Chammah, makes this intimate and well-played drama a veritable affaire de famille (and the second one since they played together in the 2010 comedy Copacabana). After premiering in Berlin’s Forum sidebar, the film could find overseas takers looking to appease their local Huppert completists, of which the number seems to be growing by the hour.
Set over the course of a few days, the story takes its time to sketch out the plot and characters at its core, although it becomes fairly clear after the first reel what the deal is: After a long absence, Catherine (Chammah) returns to the home of her mother, Elisabeth (Huppert), in order to reconnect with her estranged tweenage daughter, Alba (Themis Pauwels), who has been raised by her grandmother for over a decade.
Little is known about Catherine’s past — at one point Alba tells a friend that her mom is a famous pop singer, and we almost believe it for a stretch — but you can tell early on that she’s far from a stable person, which is probably why Elisabeth doesn’t want her spending too much time alone with Alba. Nonetheless she allows them to take off for the day, at which point Catherine rather slyly and innocently kidnaps her daughter, bringing her to a country house so that the two can get to know each other better.
It feels like a recipe for disaster, and in the final act things do eventually come to a head in some not entirely subtle ways, with director Schroeder making literal use of the title Barrage. But the majority of the film is otherwise a quiet, at times prolonged affair, revealing an estranged mother and daughter hanging out together and learning more about themselves in the process. (Huppert’s character disappears for most of the lengthy second act, though her domineering presence is felt all the time.)
There are some sweet moments between Chammah (Gaby Baby Doll) and relative newcomer Pauwels (Suite Francaise) scattered throughout the story, with Schroeder gradually revealing how two opposing personalities — Catherine is a free spirit while Alba is a goody two shoes — have more in common than they may first believe. In a way they’re both rebels who have suffered under the strict upbringing of Elisabeth, a veritable “tennis mom” if there ever was one, although she too showcases a more rebellious side later on.
Shot in a box-like aspect ratio by French cinematographer Helene Louvart (who did noteworthy work on recent American indies Dark Night and Beach Rats), Barrage has a somber tone that recalls other examples of middle European art house cinema, with Schroeder maintaining a certain distance from her subjects that can keep emotions at bay. In that sense, the film is more of a character study than a full-fledged family drama, though one that benefits from strong, naturalistic performances by castmembers that seem to know one another all too well.
Production companies: Red Lion, Entre Chien et Loup, MACT Productions
Cast: Lolita Chammah, Themis Pauwels, Isabelle Huppert
Director, screenwriter: Laura Schroeder
Producers: Pol Cruchten, Jeanne Geiben, Sebastien Delloye, Sebastien Schelenz, Martine de Clermont-Tonnerre
Director of photography: Helene Louvart
Production designer: Christina Schaffer
Costume designer: Uli Simon
Editor: Damien Keyeux
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Forum)