The old man and the mother
by Emmanuel Cuénod
03/12/2010 - The difficult mourning for a child and the loneliness of old age: The Little Room [trailer, film focus] seems to hinge on the well-oiled device of two sorrows that conflict and subside when they come into contact. At first glance anyway, for once we get past the dangerously schematic first half hour, the debut narrative feature by Swiss directors Véronique Reymond and Stéphanie Chuat, turns out to be far more perverse, subtle and daring than its opening suggests.
The story centres on visiting nurse Rose (Florence Loiret-Caille) and Edmond (Michel Bouquet), an elderly man who lives alone. She has been hired to spy on him for at the first sign of frailty in Edmond, his only son Jacques, who is about to leave for the United States, will send him to a retirement home.
Edmond’s natural defences against this aggression are those we associate with small children and old people: nastiness, indifference and sulking. But Rose doesn’t give a damn. She has lost her child. Deep in her soul, there is a block of granite, of marble, a gravestone she refuses to lay flowers on. Edmond can knock all he likes; the stone won’t crack.
Once the scene has been set, Reymond and Chuat move the characters forward gently and slowly, like old people in slippers bent over their walking sticks. They head towards the “little room”, which gives the film its title.
Still decorated as a child’s room, though never used, this is where Edmond eventually decides to settle down. The story’s focal point, the room is both a cosy nest and an icy tomb, an ordinary living area and a place of fantasy.
Having reached its destination (maturity?), the narrative then becomes more menacing, ambiguous and daring. Superbly performed by a Bouquet whose precision as an actor is equalled only by his intensity, Edmond’s transformation into a tyrannical infant forces Rose to become the mother she’s never had a chance to be.
The sudden arrival of this Kafkaesque figure in a world that until then seemed to owe most of its influences to the naturalistic vein of the Dardenne brothers and Nanni Moretti’s The Son’s Room [trailer], creates a rift that engulfs the film, its characters and the audience. We are, finally, faced with emptiness, breath-taken in harmony.
This is no doubt one of the reasons for the ovation that followed The Little Room’s screening at last summer’s Locarno Film Festival. This legitimate response prompted Swiss selectors to make this debut feature Switzerland’s official entry in the race for the 2011 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. It thus joins Of Gods and Men [trailer, film focus], Uncle Boonmee [trailer], Biutiful [trailer], Honey [trailer, film focus] and La Yuma in the 65-strong list of hopefuls for this year’s gong, an honour in itself.