This week the Mediascape Blog is running a series of posts by Laura Swanbeck on the 2013 ColCoa Film Festival.
Once Alain Évrard (Vincent Lindon), an unemployed, taciturn truck driver, is released from prison following a smuggling conviction, he strives for normalcy and traction in a world thrown out of joint. Settling in with his elderly and estranged mother, Yvette (the terrific Hélène Vincent), he soon becomes suffocated by her regimented lifestyle and constant nagging. Her immaculate housekeeping suggests order, belying decades of unearthed tension between mother and son and a protective veneer that’s slowly falling apart.
Admittedly, A Few Hours of Spring—the latest film from Stéphane Brizé (Not Here to Be Loved, Mademoiselle Chambon), which debuted at the Locarno Film Festival last year and made its U.S. premiere at ColCoa—is a study in patience. It’s more about loaded glances and pregnant pauses than it is about anything actually said between the pair. In fact, the film pivots not on the unwillingness to communicate after a traumatic series of events, but rather on the inability to do so. Brizé’s methodically paced drama intimates that the absent father was most likely physically and emotionally abusive to his family, and neither Yvette nor Alain has ever fully come to terms with this fact. Alain seeks solace in the arms of a woman he meets at a bowling alley (Emmanuelle Seigner, who recently starred in Polanski’s Venus in Fur at Cannes), but refuses to open up about his past imprisonment, which causes strife in their relationship.
This reticence also doesn’t help matters at home. Mother and son squabble about everything from the volume of the TV to feeding their pet dog scraps from under the table. Alain, who seems to have inherited his father’s quick temper, loses no time in trying to win the favor of their dog as well as Monsieur Lalouette, a sympathetic neighbor (Olivier Perrier). Their arguments sometimes border on familial clichés, with Yvette acting like a withholding mother while Alain comes across as a petulant child. Far from feeling forced, however, Brizé has managed to encapsulate that widespread phenomenon in which aging parents and middle-aged children revert back to former behaviors that defined their relationships when they lived under the same roof.
A Few Hours of Spring makes an unexpected turn when Alain, rooting around in his mother’s desk, stumbles upon a signed contract with a Swiss agency providing full euthanasia services for those who want to forgo a prolonged and painful death. Despite the shocking discovery that Yvette is terminally ill, Brizé’s film is truly intriguing in that it does not push for reconciliation between mother and son. It’s not deluded in thinking that even such monumental news miraculously and instantaneously erases years of arguments and avoidance. Brizé even admitted that Vincent, a renowned actress in France who won the Cesar Award for Life is a Long River in 1989, as well as one for J’embrasse pas in 1992, found it difficult not to soften and be more sympathetic to Lindon’s character over the evolution of the film.
Nevertheless, Yvette’s illness leads Alain to assume more personal responsibility when he offers to take his mother to Switzerland, a country in which euthanasia has been legal, and open even to foreign nationals, since 1942. The final scene, set in a Swiss hospice, will certainly linger with viewers. The haunting ending is not overwhelmed by last-minute confessions or, worse, plagued by soaring violin strings, but instead leads to an implicit understanding between the pair and an emotional catharsis of sorts. It’s one of the most wrenching endings I’ve ever seen, underscored by Vincent’s brave, elegant turn as a woman who’s decided to take her devastating fate into her own hands. With Spring, Brizé merges a social realist aesthetic with understated family drama, smartly setting it to an unobtrusive score composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. While the film drags slightly beneath the weight of its melancholic subject matter and Brizé’s dispassionate approach, the stirring performances by Vincent, Lindon, and even Seigner, who makes the most of a small but memorable role, buoy the film, transforming it into a minimalistic study of family growing pains that extend far past adolescence and a subtle meditation on mortality that offers with it the hope of reparation and redemption.
A Few Hours of Spring won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Jury Award at ColCoa. It also earned four Cesar Award nominations for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress (Hélène Vincent), and Best Actor (Vincent Lindon). Although the film has been released in its native France, it is still awaiting U.S. distribution.
Laura Swanbeck is a staunch cinephile, film festival enthusiast, and Master’s student in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA. She spent the last few years working in film programming and championing independent filmmakers at the California Film Institute and San Francisco Film Society. Areas of interest include Middle Eastern and European transnational cinema with a specific focus on immigration, exile, and diaspora. Currently she’s enamored with French film after covering the ColCoa Film Festival. She has recurring nightmares about DCP issues, unabashedly loves feminist film theory, and probably would have been Pauline Kael’s arch-nemesis had she been born a few decades earlier.