Swiss writer-director Christine Repond enjoyed festival acclaim and domestic success with her 2011 debut, the wintry coming-of-age drama Silberwald. Her second feature Vacuum turns its focus on an older generation, but maintains the same unflinching tone and starkly naturalistic feel. Partly based on real events, this female-centric domestic thriller offers an intimate portrait of a middle-aged married woman whose long-term health and security are suddenly plunged into existential jeopardy. While not exactly a fun viewing experience, Repond’s somber psychodrama is a compelling piece of work, with a chilly candor and forensic eye for detail that recall Euro-gloom maestro Michael Haneke.
Vacuum is chiefly an excellent vehicle for German stage veteran Barbara Auer, who dominates almost every scene with an exacting, finely etched, emotionally raw performance that won her the best actress prize at Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival earlier this month. More festival bookings seem assured given the film’s solid art house credentials, universal theme and high-caliber ingredients. Theatrical potential will be modest, but with smart marketing this autumnal study of late-blooming midlife crisis could strike a chord with a more mature demographic.
Meredith (Auer) and Andre (Robert Hunger-Buhler) are a long-term couple of around 60 living a comfortable life in leafy suburban Switzerland. The bond between them is plainly still warm and physical as they begin making preparations for their 35th wedding anniversary party. But Meredith’s domestic security is shattered when a routine medical check reveals she is HIV positive, a virus she can only have caught from her husband. After incredulity and denial comes the unavoidable conclusion: Andre has been unfaithful.
Initially keeping her shock news secret, an agonized Meredith turns private detective on Andre, shadowing him on a clandestine trip to a city center brothel. Exposed for his infidelity and lies, Andre becomes bitterly defensive. After a string of heated arguments and bleak medical consultations, the couple separate. But disentangling decades of marriage is not that simple. As her anger subsides, Meredith works through various stages of grief, shame, despair, extreme loneliness, grudging forgiveness and fragile reconciliation. Along the way there are awkwardly coy confessions to children and grandchildren, bouts of therapeutic pot-smoking, and some tragicomic sexual experimentation.
Vacuum is unusual in deploying a life-changing HIV diagnosis as a mere side plot to illuminate broader psychological themes of trust, betrayal and the resilience of long-term love. Repond and cinematographer Aline Laszlo mostly shoot in fluid docudrama style, their handheld camera probing into uncomfortably private spaces, especially during the brief sex scenes featuring naked middle-aged bodies in all their unavoidable imperfection. Kudos to the two leads for their lack of vanity here.
The muted color canvas of Vacuum makes the misty Swiss landscapes look as drained and despondent as the protagonists. That said, the camera loves Auer’s face, and it is her wounded intensity that gives this story its nervy, compulsive energy. As a symphony of anguish plays softly behind her Ingrid Bergman-esque composure, she wordlessly conveys an aura of uncertainty about the future that lingers long after the story concludes on a suitably downbeat, disquieting note.
Production company: Dschoint Ventschr Filmproduktion
Cast: Barbara Auer, Robert Hunger- Buhler, Anna-Katharina Muller, Oriana Schrage
Director: Christine Repond
Screenwriters: Christine Repond, Silvia Wolkan
Producer: Karin Koch
Cinematographer: Aline Laszlo
Editor: Ulrike Tortora
Venue: Black Nights Film Festival, Tallinn
Sales company: Dschoint Ventschr, Zurich