Review: I Was at Home, But…

Director: Angela Schanelec

Stars: Maren Eggert, Clara Moeller, Jakob Lassalle

Abderrahmane Sissako’s superb 2014 film Timbuktu opens and closes with imagery of a dashing springbok. In that film, the animal acts as a kind of totem for the irrepressible spirit of the Mauritanian people and their desire to escape Jihadi impingement. A fitting visual metaphor that holds in place the spacious dramas within. Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But… uses a similar bracketing device, though – like her film in its entirety – her imagery is far more diffident. Here we have a dog that chases and kills a wild rabbit (and seemingly becomes sick as a result) and the passive dark-eyed stare of a forlorn-looking donkey. The first vignette is flighty with action. The closing one shows us the animals at rest, resigned. Aside from the Bressonian overtones imposed by the donkey itself, the only connective tissue between these scenes and the main body of the picture is a sense of slowly-consuming inertia, or surrender.

Schanelec’s title suggests another auteur of classic world cinema, openly recalling the names of two of Yasujiro Ozu’s early works (I Was Born, But… and I Flunked, But…), both of which placed children front and centre. Ozu, of course, was a master at unboxing the microdramas of domesticity, picking at established frameworks in a manner that revealed universal truisms. Schanelec’s film is also about family. Hers is seemingly immobilised by grief. Her drama unfolds in often-oppressive or pregnant silences, eschews traditional exposition and asks us to participate and stitch together its scattered remnants. A muddied coat that needs to be dry-cleaned… A faculty of teachers staying on campus late, burdened by some unspoken dilemma… I Was at Home, But… doggedly refuses to draw together conveniently. Or even, one might say, satisfyingly.

Schanelec doesn’t so much unbox the family unit as she does dismantle it. Astrid (Maren Eggert) is mother to Flo (Clara Moeller) and Phillip (Jakob Lassalle). This central family is missing the father figure whom we learn (only in passing and after quite some time) died two years previously. It’s only after this that we discover Astrid has a tentative new romance on the back burner. Characters are revealed to us like breadcrumbs on some tantalising trail. Elsewhere – and very much a B-story – we observe a couple just starting out, whose future already seems crestfallen. They argue over having children. In both dramas there’s a sense that the family unit is a fragile or even fraudulent bond. A promise of solidarity without a dependable centre. On the one side we have a family missing a parent that seems newly weakened; emotionally crippled, even. On the other we have the suggestion that a relationship without children is hollow and an impotent nonstarter. In both cases the missing elements – the negative spaces – overpower any sense of union. It comes to feel like an abstract elaboration of grief.

A further dislocation comes in an ongoing motif of children acting out scenes from Hamlet, the most dysfunctional of all classic literary family tales. These scenes are imbued with a different kind of tension thanks to a long sequence in which an impassioned Astrid riles against the artifice of acting and its affront to the concept of a singular truth. One assumes the kids are practicing for a school production. But when a kid with a crown runs a scam on the supervisor at a supermarket, the coherence of this section is given a sharp knock.

A significant portion of I Was at Home, But… follows a seemingly inconsequential saga in which Astrid buys a faulty second-hand bike and has difficulty returning it. Shanelec has the scene of Astrid trying to return the bike play out in a long unbroken take; long enough for light-levels in the scene to change back and forth from the undulating cloud cover. It may be a depiction of the mundane, but this ever-so-subtle interplay of light helps make it feel like a resonant observation. Not just of life’s humdrum checks and balances, but the steady passing of time itself.

Some 45 minutes into the picture Schanelec makes what feels like a bold move; introducing non-diegetic music for the first time as Astrid sleeps at the foot of a gravestone (her husband’s?). In a moment of stark contrast, the folkish pop tune continues on into the next scene, in which the familial trio rehearse a dance in a brightly lit hospital setting (one of the only moments in which Astrid and her children seem even remotely synchronised). Schanelec continues to cut as the song plays. We see a sole shining star in the dark, and then Astrid, again, now in a gallery. A jigsaw of scenes enclosed in the parentheses of a song – a microcosm of the film at large; disparate but oddly beguiling for all its stubbornness.

A hastily graffiti’d ‘YOLO’ on a brick wall subtly suggests either a profoundly dark sense of humour, or the sense of indifference in the rest of the world; one of the strangest things one observes while going through the waking dream that is prolonged grief. A veteran on the world cinema stage, Schanelec’s detached, often cryptic observations place her in a mezzanine space between Claire Denis and Kelly Reichardt. Significant company indeed. Her film’s defiance is admirable, for a time, but the belligerence can be frustrating. Many things about the film impress, but the deliberate aversion to narrative coherence make it an exasperating watch. Not even the return of those animals from the beginning can bring about a successful sense of cohesion. Perhaps its bold of us to even assume it should.


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