Swans: Berlin Review

Kai Hillebrand
A wan drama that sings its own swansong through its disengaged tone.

BERLIN -- Observing how a father and son respond to the ex-wife/mother's critical illness in Swans, director Hugo Vieira Da Silva sets out to evoke estrangement (from people, place, one's own self) in a cinematic language that overrides dialogue and narrative drama. With two bland, un-engaging leads, the person most alienated turns out to be the audience. Even an arthouse crowd who thrives on minimalism and abstraction won't warm quickly to Swans even if it spreads its wings to major festivals.

Businessman Tarso (Ralph Herforth), who has lived in Portugal for years, returns to Berlin to visit his ex-lover Petra (Maria Schuster) with their teenage son Manuel (Kai Hillebrand). Petra, who left Manuel when he was three, is lying in a chemotherapy-induced coma. Father and son stay in the apartment that Petra shared with a Thai woman, Kim (Vasupol Siriviriyapoon).

A series of tactile contacts with Petra's comatose body brings out dormant emotions and shows how difficult it is for people to connect. The film could have achieved transcendent lyricism had it strayed less from this intense physicality -- the compelling (often overhead) shots of Petra's naked body, and the different ways in which she is touched -- clinically, lovingly or furtively by nurses, Kim and Tarso, dominates the cinematic space. Had Manuel's sexual interest been made less explicit, it would further stoke one's imagination about the mixture of fear, curiosity, disgust and fascination in his reactions.

About two-thirds of the dawdling 124 minutes, father and son mope about in the apartment or roam their local district Gropiusstadt in a state of restless idleness. Manuel does skateboarding, graffiti, listens to rap, masturbates and strikes up an intimate relationship with Kim's possessions - a titillating collection of masks and lingerie. Tarso watches sports on TV and turns to holistic treatment to relieve his health troubles.

Editorial economy is sorely lacking as Da Silva's seems unaware that he already made his point the first time he does a scene (like the sports excerpts, or the masks) and variations of the same act are redundant. Ubiquitous low angle shots of feet, supine bodies, shoes and household items hint at a floor fetish that doesn't take any symbolic or otherwise meaningful form.

Champion skateboarder Hillebrand is more expressionless than his comatose mother, while Hertforth's acting is two-toned. Consequently, the frequent close-ups achieve little contrastive effect vis a vis the other long or wide shots. Schuster actually has more presence, her rich muscle movements making one wonder if she is at times conscious and cognizant. The director is responsible for his artistic decision to "open up a sensory space of indefiniteness" which puts actors at sea as to how and what (or not) to convey.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival
Sales: The Match Factory
A Flying Moon production, un co-production with Contracosta Producoes, in association with The Post Republic
Cast: Kai Hillebrand, Ralph Herforth, Maria Schuster, Vasupol Siriviriyapoon
Director-screenwriter: Hugo Vieira Da Silva
Co-director: Heidi Wilim
Producer: Helge Albers
Director of photography: Reinhold Vorschneider
Production designer: Thomas Molt
Costume designer: Gabriella Ausonio
Editor: Andrea Wagner
No rating, 134 minutes