A chance for a mother and son to ride the high country and spend some quality time together turns into a more treacherous psychological trek in Keep Going (Continuer), the latest feature from prolific Belgian auteur Joachim Lafosse (Our Children, After Love). Returning to the themes of his previous films but setting them against the wider canvas of a modern-day western, this tense and engrossingly performed two-hander feels a bit truncated in its final act but otherwise makes for a solid addition to Lafosse’s string of anxious, edgy and sometimes deadly family affairs. After premiering in Venice it could keep going on to festival play and limited art-house release.
The film begins in media res in the middle of the breathtaking vistas of Kyrgyzstan, where we’re introduced to 30-something mom, Sybille (Virginie Efira) and her volatile son, Samuel (Kacey Mottet-Klein), who are about to set out on a long voyage. We understand little about the pair except that they know their way around horses yet seem to be awfully estranged, with Samuel tersely responding to his mother’s continued attempts to connect, or else tuning her and the rest of the world out with his iPod.
But as the story — which was adapted from Laurent Mauviginier’s novel by Lafosse and a host of writers— progresses, the reason for all the antipathy comes into focus, and what at first seemed like a simple if rather risky family trip turns into a deeper, darker portrait of two semi-strangers coming together while forever on the verge of unraveling.
Carried by the proficient and sometimes explosive turns of its two leads, Keep Going adheres to some of the basic rules of the western genre, with DP Jean-Francois Hensgens chronicling the cross-country voyage in rugged physical detail, making excellent use of all the sprawling landscapes (the film was actually shot in Morocco). Yet like in his other movies, Lafosse renders the drama highly claustrophobic: Sybille and Samuel may be two tiny figures alone in the wilderness, but they also can’t escape themselves, and although the pair faces a few real dangers — a mud hole, a pack of knife-wielding bandits — their greatest danger lies in each other.
Efira, who has evolved from variety TV star to commercial comedies to more serious roles as of late (she will be headlining Paul Verhoeven’s upcoming Benedetta), is excellent here as a woman caught between her fiercely independent nature and her desire to be a good mother, trying to steer her son on the right path. Sybille’s own life has clearly been problematic up until now — we learn, about halfway through the film, that she was a teenage mom who abandoned her family — and she’s doing her best to turn things around, which makes her journey all the more poignant.
Yet the real star of the show is 19-year-old Mottet-Klein, who already revealed his enormous potential in films like Ursula Meier’s Sister and Andre Techine’s Being 17. He rivetingly plays Samuel as both a sensitive horse whisperer and a completely erratic loner who can fly off the handle at any moment (apparently he beat up one of his teachers back in France), making him both a threat and an object of affection. In one telling scene, Sybille frantically loses sight of her son, only to find him standing isolated on a faraway cliff, dancing by himself to an EDM track that blares on his headphones.
The turbulent relationship comes to a head when the two reach an encampment of riders on the other side of the country, leading to an extended nighttime party sequence that soon spins out of control. Yet just when things seem to be edging toward a powerful finale, the movie ends rather abruptly — it clocks in at only 84 minutes — and although the character arcs are more or less fulfilled it also feels like there’s something missing here, at least in the aftermath of the violence that we’ve witnessed.
Still, Lafosse wisely uses the western template to further explore what has been the subject of most of his work, from the Isabelle Huppert-starrer Private Property (2006) to his last effort, After Love (2016): how families are constantly brought to the point of combustion and sometimes do, in fact, blow apart. If Keep Going advances in a similar direction, it also marks a change of pace for the director in terms of both of setting and content. Here, it’s as if all the fresh air and wide-open spaces have gradually worked their magic, and perhaps for the first time a Lafossian clan may pull back from the brink.
Production companies: Versus Productions, Les Films du Worso
Cast: Virginie Efira, Kacey Mottet-Klein, Diego Martin, Mairambek Kozhoev
Directors: Joachim Lafosse
Screenwriters: Joachim Lafosse, Thomas van Zuylen, Fanny Burdino, Marazine Pingeot, Samuel Doux, based on the book “Continuer” by Laurent Mauvignier
Producers: Sylvie Pialat, Jacques-Henri Bronckart, Benoit Quainon, Olivier Bronckart
Director of photography: Jean-Francois Hensgens
Production designer: Stanislas Reydellet
Costume designer: Pascaline Chavanne
Editor: Yann Dedet
Sales: Le Pacte
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Giornati Degli Autori)
In French, Russian