Coming Home: Berlin Film Review

Les Films Hatari
French sequestration drama offers a chillingly nuanced view of a prolonged trauma.

Frederic Videau's character study follows one girl’s eight years in captivity at the hands of a troubled kidnapper.

A subtly – perhaps too much so for some – rendered study of one girl’s 8-year-long sequestration and subsequent release at the hands of a troubled kidnapper, Coming Home (A moi seule) reps an intriguing low-key sophomore effort from French writer-director Frederic Videau. Featuring a bewitching lead turn from Agathe Bonitzer as a quick-witted captive who shows herself to be both defiant and submissive towards her abductor, this modest Berlin Competition entry should find niche arthouse play offshore, with a strong local reception accompanying its April 4 local release.

Although an opening title card claims that the film is a “work of the author’s imagination,” the recent Austrian cases of Natascha Kampusch (who was held for eight years before escaping) and Elisabeth Fritzl (whose father locked her indoors for over two decades, siring seven of her children) clearly come to mind here. Yet rather than providing the kind of distanced clinical drama that’s become a staple of Euro fest fare, Videau offers up a surprisingly tender, and even occasionally funny portrait of the hate, confusion and undeniable affection that arises from such a long-term relationship between kidnapper and victim.

Cutting back and forth between the periods preceding and following the sequestration of 18-year-old Gaelle (Bonitzer) at the hands of reclusive lumberyard worker Vincent (Reda Kateb), the narrative eschews the suspenseful setup of many a psychological thriller. Instead, it opens with Vincent suddenly (and inexplicably, at least until the final reel) setting Gaelle free, then backtracks to reveal details of their disturbing lifestyle, and how, stretched out over eight years, such a lifestyle sadly became the norm for both of them.

Forced to spend the majority of her time in a locked basement during her confinement, and then in a psychiatric hospital once she’s released, Gaelle constantly grapples to find her place in the opposing, yet curiously similar worlds: While under Vincent’s custody, she tries as she can to enjoy the minute daily pleasures (a glimpse of sunlight, a few minutes on the internet) of an otherwise horrific existence; when she’s out in the open, she unwillingly submits herself to the gentle probing of a psychiatrist (Helene Fillieres), suffers the embraces of her guilt-ridden mother (Noemie Lvovsky, excellent), and tries to keep clear of a stalking local paparazzi.

In either case, life is shown to be both a mental and physical prison for the smart, extremely resourceful teen, and Coming Home is ultimately less a portrait of a long-term crime than it is a nuanced depiction of how girls like Gaelle are forever at the mercy of adult whims.

To that extent, the film is Bonitzer’s for the taking, and with her aquiline, frail beauty, the young actress (and daughter of filmmakers Pascal Bonitzer and Sophie Fillieres) skillfully portrays a character whose resilience and sense of humor often come at the expense of her own sanity.

As the cruel yet fragile Vincent, Kateb (who had a small but memorable role in Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet) transforms an undoubtedly damaged person into a rather touching figure, and at times it’s unclear who’s actually being held by who here: Vincent seems as much captive to his desire for Gaelle’s permanent company as she’s subjected to his pure physical will. (Though he never tries to rape her, a sexual relationship is suggested at one point.)

Captured with a series of delicately lit long takes and two-shots by d.p. Marc Tevanian, and filled with creepy upbeat music by Florent Marchant, the small-scale production makes strong use of its minimalist decors. Set designer Catherine Mananes (Enfances) does a fine job depicting Vincent’s secluded residence, and certain details, such as the unpainted drywall lining the entrance to Gaelle’s dungeon, reflect the film’s refusal to provide any real sense of closure to its extended ordeal.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Les Films Hatari, Studio Orlando
Cast: Agathe Bonitzer, Reda Kateb, Helene Fillieres, Noemie Lvovsky, Jacques Bonnaffe, Margot Couture, Gregrory Gadebois, Marie Payen
Director, screenwriter: Frederic Videau
Producer: Laetitia Fevre
Director of photography: Marc Tevanian
Production designer: Catherine Mananes
Music: Florent Marchet
Costume designer: Laurence Struz
Editor: Francois Quiquere
Sales Agent: Pyramide International
No rating, 94 minutes