A difficult mother reaps isolation and irrelevance in Jan Ole Gerster’s acerbic family dramedy
Words by Rhys Handley / @RhysHandley2113
Opening on its eponymous figure stood at an open high-rise window ready to jump on her 60th birthday, Jan Ole Gerster’s new film Lara has the inescapable feeling of an epilogue. Even though she steps away from the ledge, and no other cause of death is duly imminent, one cannot shake the feeling that Gerster is introducing the viewer to a woman at the end of her life.
Lara Jenkins (Corrina Harfouch) is introduced unkempt and bedraggled in her bedclothes, stepping away from oblivion to answer the door to two police officers calling on her to witness a home search as part of her duties as a former civil servant. Her burgeoning irrelevance is reinforced as HQ calls in to ask the cops if they are “done with the old bag”, a sleight she takes with a muted grimace confirming it as a regular occurrence. Death is not imminent for Lara, but her standing and utility have faded.
To say Corinna Harfouch carries this role with grace would be misselling the tricksy intrigue of her work — from the first frame she emanates a weather-beaten sturdiness equal parts resilience and defeat.
What becomes apparent as the wider context of Lara’s life is revealed is the apathy and disdain with which the world meets her is just as self-inflicted as it is a sociological consequence of female ageing. A divorced mother estranged from her musical prodigy son, Lara suppressed her own talents and ducked out of her dreams early in life, and allowed her malaise to curdle into resentment and hostility; she has spent her life responding to the dismissal and discredit of her mentors and parental figures by in turn dismissing and discrediting her own son, Viktor (Tom Schilling).
Now a successful composer, Viktor has seemingly made the conscious choice to debut his first composition on his mother’s birthday. Set over the course of a single, shitty day, the bulk of the film depicts Lara reeling at this news, bouncing across the city between episodes, exhausting in their self-defeatist desperation and monotony, with various figures from her disappointing life — former colleagues, her one-time mentor, her own estranged mother — in an attempt to externalise and reconcile the mess of pride, jealousy, maternal instinct and insecurity that motivates her relationship with her son.
Once a promising pianist herself, it quickly becomes clear to most that Lara is projecting herself onto the unwilling Viktor. Harfouch conveys the silent seething that operates beneath the surface of the character; further exacerbated by Viktor’s spectral presence over the first half of the movie in billboards and hushed conversations. He is positioned early on by Lara as an enemy, someone to be feared and reviled — a narrative that soon falls apart once he becomes an active presence.
Schilling arrives onscreen shrouded in moody black, but his soft and approachable face suggests the wounded, sensitive child below the veneer of the serious artist. He goes toe-to-toe with Harfouch from the off, as the two trade barbs over a cigarette. Their tête-à-têtes become a battleground revisited at various intervals throughout the film’s latter half. Lara jostles for relevance in Viktor’s life, while Viktor fights for autonomy from a mother who cannot help but prick him with hurtful critiques even in her attempts to make nice.
Lara spirals between these encounters. As she shuffles down the streets of Berlin, Gerster captures the looming, angular, concrete architecture in such a way that it threatens to swallow her whole. We feel her wilting under the external pressure of her self-wrought demonisation among her peers (including a consistently exasperated Rainer Bock as her ex-husband and Viktor’s father Paul) as she meekly changes out of a provocative black dress-and-heels combo into sober, professional attire before arriving at the opera house for Viktor’s concert.
Permeating the harried frustration at the heart of Lara all the while is a reverence for the mystique of music. Viktor and Lara discuss his composition in specific, specialist detail, building an idea of themes and motifs in our heads before a single note is heard. Lara’s own musical ability is also repeatedly referred to, but tension arises whenever she sits by a piano and, for one reason or another, draws back from tickling the ivories.
Gerster builds his climax around that mounting tension as Lara is increasingly sidelined and erased from proceedings. The exaggerations and half-truths she has used to lure people to the recital are quickly undermined, with a feeling of desperation and powerlessness gradually overwhelming Lara’s more inherent obstinate nature – we feel trapped there with her, screaming into the silence as people turn their backs and start to enjoy lives that don’t need her in them.
Desperation gives way to exhaustion, as moments of catharsis and defeat overlap — the crossroads Lara stands at is signposted in the glimmers of conviviality and the moments of tenderness and regard Gerster is sure to draw our eye to as Lara drifts hopelessly. Tales of lost potential drift over a lilting soundtrack of melancholy strings and what is left is a mother whose mistakes have robbed her of her son.
What’s heartbreaking about Lara (and indeed Lara) is the genuine affection its sprawling cast of characters still holds for the titular heroine. Whatever frustration or disdain they express is laced in appealing and carefully-calibrated line deliveries with notes of reverence and sympathy, as well as an admittance that Viktor’s talent, not only his anxieties, came from his mother.
It’s meagre and ineffective though, as Gerster’s cyclical narrative is sure to bring Lara’s long-ago sown missteps back round upon her, delivering retribution in the form of this aching, stifled epilogue of her life.
Director: Jan Ole Gerster
Duration: 98 minutes
Release: Screened as part of the 63rd BFI London Film Festival
Rhys Handley is a freelance journalist and film critic currently reading Film Studies MA at King's College London. He has appeared in Sight & Sound, One Room with a View, CineVue and Vague Visages.