'Madre': Film Review | Venice 2019

MADRE Still 1 - Venice Film Festival - H 2019
Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival

Spanish director Rodrigo Sorogoyen ('The Realm') successfully expands his Oscar-winning short to feature length.

After making the highly successful The Realm, which can only be described as a political-corruption movie at breakneck speed, Spanish filmmaker Rodrigo Sorogoyen returns to calmer and deeper if still equally troubled waters with Madre. The director’s fifth feature is not only inspired by his eponymous 2017 short, which was nominated for an Oscar, but actually incorporates it. The previously existing material — which shows a Madrid mother freaking out, in one long take, when her 6-year-old son calls her to tell her his father has abandoned him on some godforsaken beach — is here used as a 17-minute prologue to a story set 10 years later. 

In the feature, the mother has actually moved close to the shore where her son was lost, on the Atlantic Coast in France just north of the Spanish border, to start a new life. If that isn’t enough of an indication that she hasn’t really processed his loss, she strikes up an uneasy friendship with a local French boy who’s about 16, or the age her son would have been by now, and who physically reminds her of him. Though the prologue is all about quickly escalating tension, fear and despair, the feature is more of a slow-burning psychological drama with a deceptively light, Ozon-like touch, as a curious teenager and a traumatized mother who still hasn’t processed her grief enjoy spending time together.

This impeccably filmed and acted Venice Horizons title is an accessible art house drama that, though it doesn’t quite stick the landing, should help further consolidate Sorogoyen’s reputation as one of Spain’s brightest young talents.  

Most of the feature unfolds on the beaches of Vieux-Boucau-Les-Bains, north of Biarritz, where 39-year-old Elena (Marta Nieto) has, after working there for a decade, become the manager of a seaside café. She has a steady boyfriend, Joseba (Spanish-German actor Alex Brendemuehl), though he doesn’t live with her and travels a lot for work. This is perhaps one of the reasons Elena has a little too much time to think, especially during long walks on the very beach where her son, Ivan, presumably met his end. 

During one of these strolls, she first spots the curly redhead Jean (Julies Porier, from Isabelle Huppert starrer Marvin), and though we never get to see a photo of Ivan, it is clear from the look in Elena’s eyes that he stirs up something deep inside her. Indeed, she feels the inexplicable need to try and follow him home unnoticed. As if by magic, the next day Jean shows up at her café, orders coffee and makes small talk. It might initially be unclear what drives him except for his admission, after initially playing it coy, that the fact that she trailed him was “one of the coolest things that has happened to me in a while." This would clearly be enough to impress a relatively inexperienced but intensely curious teenage boy. 

There’s an immediate spark between the two, who are over 20 years apart, and what keeps audiences hooked is that the precise nature of their mutual appreciation isn’t immediately clear. Does Jean hope to sleep with an older, experienced woman? Is Elena looking for a surrogate son that could fill the void left by Ivan? Are their deepest, unspoken desires actually mutually exclusive? The beauty of the screenplay, by the director and his regular co-scripter, Isabel Pena, is that it respects the fact that the characters clearly don’t have the answers to any of these questions, especially early on. The unlikely duo just know that being together somehow feels good, perhaps because as a teenager and the village’s famous “Spanish lady who lost her son,” both know what it’s like to be instantly judged and frequently misunderstood. It doesn’t matter to either of them that everyone around them, from Jean’s “bourgeois” — his words — parents (Anne Consigny, Frederic Pierrot) and his peers to Elena’s boyfriend and her colleagues, might think something unseemly could be going on.

Their rapport is beautifully uncomplicated for themselves but nonetheless rich and fascinating for the viewer, echoing not only specifically François Ozon’s Charlotte Rampling vehicle Under the Sand (which was also set in the Landes region and dealt with a disappearance and grief) but the complex intergenerational relationships present in some of his other works, such as Swimming Pool, Young & Beautiful and In the House. The luminosity and seductive quality of the camerawork — including a lot of curvilinear Steadicam — by Sorogoyen’s regular DP, Alex de Pablo, also recalls Ozon’s recent films, further suggesting a kind of kinship. 

There’s a scene, about three-quarters into the story, that’s an absolute stunner. It features Elena going to a covered terrace of a chalet to meet Ramon (Raul Prieto), the father of Ivan. It has been 10 years since the events in the prologue. Both have new partners now and have ostensibly at least tried to move on. After finding them at their table with a gorgeous view of fall-time trees — subtly suggesting change and loss — the camera stops moving. Ivan’s father and mother face each other across a large table. He has a full glass but she has nothing in front of her. Visually, there is a big void between them, which, like the glass-full/no-glass situation, clearly also serves a metaphorical function. Ramon has some news to share. Elena doesn’t take it well. In a flash, all the unprocessed pain of the past rears its head and it gets ugly. 

Pena and her co-scribe could have ended their film there. The entire scene, with its symbolical, fixed-tableau composition, is the polar opposite of the opening’s sinuous Steadicam shots. The story feels like it has come full circle. But unfortunately, the two-hour film continues for a while longer. It moves into less steady territory, as storylines come together, butt heads or are frayed in ways that never feel completely organic or credible. There’s an answer of sorts to the question about the nature of Elena and Jean’s relationship that feels like a strange compromise, a perfunctory scene needed for a more traditional narrative rather than something that’s actually insightful or true to the material. 

Nonetheless, it is undeniable that Sorogoyen is a master filmmaker. His work with his actors is impressive, with Nieto, in a fully bilingual performance, and Porier both natural yet nuanced. The director also constantly creates visuals — often using distorting lenses or compositions — and audio cues that give the story a more metaphorical dimension without ever distracting from the characters. As they would say in Mexico, this Madre is muy padre.

Production companies: Malvalanda, Caballo Films, Arcadia Motion Pictures, Amalur Pictures, Le Pacte, Noodles Production
Cast: Marta Nieto, Julies Porier, Alex Brendemuehl, Anne Consigny, Frederic Pierrot, Guillaume Arnault, Raul Prieto
Director: Rodrigo Sorogoyen
Screenwriters: Isabel Pena, Rodrigo Sorogoyen
Producers: Maria del Puy Alvarado, Ibon Cormenzana, Rodrigo Sorogoyen, Ignasi Estape, Thomas Pibarot, Jean Labadie, Anne Laure Labadie, Jerome Vidal, Eduardo Villanueva, Jofre Farre
Executive producer: Maria del Puy Alvarado 
Cinematography: Alex de Pablo 
Production design: Lorena Puerto
Costume design: Ana Lopes Cobo
Editing: Alberto del Campo
Music: Olivier Arson
Casting: Julie Navarro
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Horizons)

Sales: Le Pacte

In Spanish, French
129 minutes