Is The Father a Pointless Circle?
While Florian Zeller’s directorial debut received near-unanimous praise, Sasho Pshenko examines The Father from the perspective of its narrative structure and tries to determine whether critical praise has, in fact, been misplaced.
In recent years, one rarely sees films like Florian Zeller’s The Father (2020) take the spotlight to the degree that it did. I am not referring to the film’s novelty as an emotional drama, nor as an intimate spectacle in which one sees internationally renowned film superstars with enviable “acting chops” take on a subtle and poignant screenplay and make it a cathartic experience for a wide audience – these are film “clichés” which have been widely acknowledged by both general audiences and the Academy for many years. Hence why in this regard, the feature’s unanimous praise, as well as the well deserved Academy Award which Sir Anthony Hopkins received for his masterful acting, are arguably the least surprising sides to this entire story.
What is truly peculiar is how a film which decides to question and disrupt the viewer’s (as much as the characters’) sense of reality to the degree that The Father does, has been met with so little controversy. Admittedly, it has been lauded for being “experimental,” intricate, and unquestioningly dedicated, but this is praise for its technicality, rather than for the possible philosophical implications which it could bear. After all, films which go so far in their quest to relativise our perceptions of the world – of time, space, and reality – surely have something bold to say, they must carry a radical drive which pushes them to become what they are, right? Consequently, the attention which they do get – regardless of how much – should only naturally be drawn to this inherent drive, not in spite, but precisely because of its subtlety, because the rest of the feature, ornamented as it might be, is primarily subordinated to this movement of the artwork, directed by the artist who wants to say something.
Then what is the issue with The Father? Have “general audiences” grown so used to classical narrative storytelling that they are unable to read it properly? Are they only accustomed to expecting “weird,” “experimental” cinema from “auteur” filmmakers with an already established reputation in Hollywood, like Lynch for example, and are only receptive to the “reality-altering particle” before watching their newest entry? Or, maybe, while being an undeniably “good” film, The Father may turn out to be an empty film that has nothing to say at all? So much so that it might plaster the craziest of structures atop its basic premise, yet it would all prove to be utterly inconsequential, nothing more than a gimmick?
But I am getting ahead of myself. In order to question the particular character of the feature’s experimentation and to pinpoint the core, so to speak, of what it wants to say, we would first have to lay down what it offers to the viewer – in other words, to reconstruct the narrative that the viewer sees and, consequently, deduce what they get (and do not get) from it. Why is it that an ambitious undertaking such as this is received as a heartfelt drama, rather than as a potential successor to Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961), for example?
The Father, an adaptation of Zeller’s play Le Pére, is structured around Anthony (Hopkins), an aging man with a progressively worsening case of dementia, who desperately tries to make sense of the world, while also trying to both keep his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) by his side and prove that he is still capable of taking care of himself. Of course, none of his three goals is realistically achievable, which is the main source of drama in the film. The tragedy sees the poor man struggle in a world of incomprehensibility, where he is not only doomed to lose his closest relative and his own independence, but also any sort of solid conception of the past, present, and future, as well as of his home (and the familiar spaces that constitute it).
Zeller’s genius additionally augments the experience by putting the viewer in Anthony’s shoes – the film is shot as if seen through the eyes of a person with dementia and constructs an unclear, non-linear narrative line, which keeps going in circles, and establishes a multitude of potential, parallel, versions of reality, each connecting to the others in an irregular manner, thus not only making it difficult to trace the linearity of what “really” happens, but also making us question whether what we see does happen at all. If so, which of the narratives we see would be the true one? The film, of course, does not give an explicit answer to these questions. And, to a degree, this is precisely what makes it so fascinating. Memory is a fickle thing, and, if one were to adhere to Henri Bergson’s theories, as elaborated in his 1896 book Matter and Memory, it is almost weirdly disconnected from reality. Our only true contact with the world, with reality, is the singular moment of perception, the infinitesimal fraction of a second during which we receive the perceptive stimulus from the outside. The moment we try to reconstruct what it is that we have witnessed, we are actually constructing a narrative, a story, a “lie.” In this regard, even our identities, our sense of self, is nothing more than a fiction. Moreover, the further back one can date certain memories, the less real and more “story-fied” they tend to become.
Zeller utilizes his feature to break away from this notion of the “fiction” that enslaves us, the fiction of our life. The memories of Anthony’s distant past are all but gone, emerging most prominently during the last scene in the hospital, as a kind of last resort to which his mind tries to cling. They, along with the remnants of the memories connected to his other (deceased) daughter, Lucy, and some of his older personal belongings, are treated as his most cherished possessions; yet, while they might be the most crucial, carefully protected things which he owns, the true “battle” of the film is waged on the front of his more recent recollections. Which apartment does he live in, Anne’s or his own? Is Anne married? Is Paul (Rufus Sewell) a stranger, her husband or her ex-husband? Is she divorced-and-single, or divorced and in a relationship with another man, soon to move to Paris and leave her father alone? Is Paul an ally or an enemy? What do the faces of his daughter and son-in-law look like – like those of Colman and Sewell, or like those of Olivia Williams and Mark Gatiss? Who is Laura (Imogen Poots) – is she maybe Lucy?
These questions – these problems of Anthony’s – are not posited as loose, open lines, separated by multiple paths of the truth, between which he would have to choose. They are all closed lines, circles that tie into each other in such a way as to form an endless continuity of paradoxes, a sort of quadrupled Möbius strip. Thus, for example, the dinner scene sees Anthony overhear a conversation between Anne and Paul from the hallway, before entering the dining room and joining them. The ensuing conversation, itself, contains dialogue fragments which we (along with Anthony) have already heard in previous scenes, this time combined and mixed with other, new, pieces of information. After a short while Anthony goes to the restroom and on his way back overhears a secret conversation between Anne and Paul which refers to the conversation which the three of them had just had. This secret conversation, however, is none other than the conversation Anthony overheard at the beginning of the scene, before entering the dining room in the first place.
What is, then, the true order of the information delivery? Was Anthony aware of the secret conversation during the dinner, or did he only hear it afterwards? Is he psychic, or is he imagining things? The world into which Zeller plunges us is more than just a world of forgetfulness – it is a world of multiple pasts, as well as multiple futures. The present seems to already have been abolished – it has consumed the entire film itself and all that we see before the final scene in the hospital is precisely this “presentless” present which contains within itself a multiplicity of divergent pasts and futures, all so similar to each other, yet different enough to make their incompatibility insurmountable. What would, then, be the task of the viewer? To play a detective, trying to tell the truth from the lie, or to follow Zeller, along with Anthony, on this odyssey through the realms of memory and the narratives which it constructs? The latter option would definitely be the most obvious answer for films like the aforementioned Last Year at Marienbad, for example, and it would have been for The Father too, had that final hospital scene, the culmination and “heart” of the story, not been inserted.
That scene is the sole reason why even I, right now, will not proceed with a further analysis of the reality-bending questions which Zeller poses (nor with a detailed praise for the intricate set design, which plays tricks on the audience’s mind by overlaying the interior design of Anthony’s and Anne’s apartments with the hospital, among other things) – because after that final scene, they all remain pointless and inconsequential.
Admittedly, the scene does not set out to untangle the entirety of the bundle of, mostly contradictory, information which the audience had been fed throughout the film, but it does untangle enough to let us know that Zeller’s world was not, after all, Anthony’s world – it was a world of a single reality, of a clear past and future, and, more than anything, a world of pathos. We see the present – Anthony in the hospital, surrounded by the nurses who turn out to have been the secondary faces which he had assigned to his daughter and her husband. Anne already lives in Paris and Anthony has been left alone. All the time he had been trying to tell if he was in Anne’s or his own apartment, he had, in fact, been in the hospital. He is confused, he cries, he does not remember who he is. He asks for his mummy – he has mentally reverted to a toddler. Everything is sad, the audience cries. It all hits that much harder after the hour-plus-long confusion which preceded this heartbreaking scene. At the end of the day, we spent a film’s length in Anthony’s shoes and now we might have a slight semblance of what it feels like to be an elderly person with dementia.
But what of this? What purpose does it serve? Is such a complex film composition necessary to say that “people with dementia have feelings and we should have empathy for them”? Because it seems that it does not aspire to say anything more than this. There already are quite a few films which explore similar experiences (Still Alice  comes to mind) without the experimental angle. Would any audience feel like they are lacking in quality, profundity, or production of empathy simply because they did not make the entire film twisted and disorienting? I would firmly argue against this. Hence why I believe that the sole thing which makes this film interesting to begin with is absolutely superfluous when one stops to consider things. Yet it need not have been like that.
Anthony’s dementia was a solid starting point, but Zeller could have done more. He could have utilized the 97-minute run-time to show how, for example, dislodging our minds from their usual, fixed, and rigid perception of reality – even if the catalyst might be something like an illness – can prove to be eye-opening and liberating, how it can enable even “healthy” people to open up to new vistas of life, to question the causality and rationality we all take for granted. He could have gone in many other directions of this sort, thus lending gravitas to his film’s intricacy. But he did not. In the end, we did not get any further from the beginning. The main “villain,” the twist, was exposed and (gasp) it turned out to have been the dementia all along.
Not to be misunderstood, I do not aim to discredit the qualitative and artistic potential of emotional dramas, nor the impact of a strong catharsis – far from it – but I do think that they need to be firmly grounded in the point of the text. Why does it exist? What does it want to say? Even without tapping into political waters, it is arguable that art should be, even when tame, in a way, radical; it should fight for something, fight to prove a point, fight to justify its own existence if nothing else.
Furthermore, it needs to be aware of its own pretensions – what it wants to say, what genre it operates in (and, if it breaks the rules of the genre/s, how and why), what is the suitable way to approach it, what are the constraints (financial, production, creative) which limit it.
The Father is an undeniably good film, maybe even great. It is creative, emotional, the acting is superb, the direction, screenplay, as well as the set and production designs are on point. But it suffers from an internal disjointedness between what it is and what it makes itself out to be. Pitching this film is ridiculously easy to imagine (“Hey, how about I write a drama about a man with dementia filmed from his point of view?”) and this is a good way to start thinking about a feature, but, thematically speaking, it should be the inciting point for what the film could explore, not the only thing around which everything is built. The film is a circle which lasts for an hour and a half, in which it neither moves nor achieves anything. It is absolutely inert. This is why the entirety of the praise it received is directed at the “emotional core” and the strength of the performances, while the mind-bending aspect of it is mentioned as an afterthought. I am not arguing that it did not deserve the praise – it did. Sadly, however, it could have been much more than what it ended up being and it was so close to achieving that. I guess what remains is to look forward to Zeller’s next feature and hope for the best. ▲
Sasho Pshenko is a Film Aesthetics graduate from the University of Oxford, with a background in Comparative Literature. Torn between desires for both academia and practical filmmaking, he spends his time pondering over various topics from the fields of literature, film, and philosophy.