Jasmine Trinca’s tale of narcissism, mother and daughter bonding and a road trip gone bad is not exactly fun but is nevertheless oddly rewarding.
There are many films about dysfunctional parent/child units that slowly overcome the sense of alienation that exists between them, often through tragedy, finally coming to terms with the personality defects that have kept them apart and allowing the audience to appreciate them growing as people. I’m not sure Marcel! is one of those films, even though it is essentially the story of a daughter trying to connect with her distant mother. For one thing, the connection made during the film is a bit flimsy and ambiguous. For another, you really wonder what the point of the daughter’s efforts were, because the unnamed mother (Alba Rocher) in this film is such a relentlessly terrible person that she seems a lost cause – there’s no explaining the yearning for maternal approval, I guess. There’s some charm in watching the equally unnamed daughter (Mayaane Conti) trying to break through but frankly, she seems to be wasting her time.
The titular Marcel is a dog and the closest to anything – other than herself – that the mother seems to love, though even this seems a very self-centred form of love – it’s the daughter who has to take the dog for a walk and clean up its shit. The daughter also has to buy and cook food for the pair – the fridge regularly being empty other than food for the dog – while her mother engages in ‘divination’ and self-satisfaction. The mother’s love for the dog seems tied to her own artistic pretensions – the pair have a street theatre act that involves a simple story about the dog running away and then eventually returning home. Like all the performances that we see the mother give during the film, it’s wildly melodramatic and over-acted, with the dog easily outshining the woman – but she clearly sees this as a route to stardom in the world of street theatre, despite her audiences being half a dozen bored spectators and one obsessive fan. When Marcel actually does run away – while she is reading a lengthy love letter/sexual fantasy from said fan – the woman is heartbroken. Is it the loss of her dog or her career that upsets her? Hard to say. But she treats her daughter as little more than an irritation, which leads to a sticky end for the poor dog, who has returned home but whose presence is not appreciated by the main rival for the mother’s attention.
You might think that with Marcel out of the way, things might improve between mother and daughter. Obsessions die hard though. The mother sets out to leave home – possibly to commit suicide until the daughter catches her up and demands to be taken along on the journey to a street art festival. There’s the opportunity for the pair to bond, especially as the child plays the saxophone and so offers an alternative performance combination. But the mother is relentlessly appalling – she insults family members that they stay with en route and musicians that they encounter at a fair, nobody – in her mind – being as important or as talented as she is, and the one moment of drunken connection with her daughter involves telling a story of previous happiness that the pair shared, only for the girl to tell her “that wasn’t me, mum”.
Jasmine Trinca’s film is a slow-paced and often painful story, full of small moments of cruelty that are all the worse for being so minor. The daughter’s life is one where she is ignored or ridiculed – mocked by the other girls in the village, continually told stories of her missing (presumably dead) father by a grandmother who seems more attentive but who barely has any more connection than the mother. The road trip aspect of the film is fascinating for what it doesn’t do – which is what we expect from all such stories, a softening of the mother and a new bond developing between the pair. In a way, I was glad that this didn’t happen because it would be not only unrealistic but also a cop-out. Narcissistic characters like this don’t change. The mother is so in love with herself that there is no room to love anyone else – and her affection for Marcel seems to be entirely based on his ability to shore up her own sense of importance – a second-fiddle creative partner who will never argue or answer back.
Rocher does a fine job of making the mother into an unbearable monster. Like all narcissists, she believes herself to be hugely talented – a wildly mistaken belief as it turns out. At one point, a character points out that she believes herself to be the offspring of Pina Bausch and Marcel Marceau, and you can see that misguided ego at work throughout. A line of dialogue late in the film twists the motives, the mother’s damaged personality and the attachment to Marcel somewhat – but it doesn’t really justify why she is so unpleasant or why she has treated her daughter so badly. Personal tragedy might explain a lot but it doesn’t act as an excuse for awful behaviour. It’s a difficult character to play, I would think, because she’s not exactly a villain – but is also inherently unloveable and that’s a tough call for any actor to make interesting, so Rocher’s performance is all the more admirable for managing to do so. You won’t like the mother, but she is compulsively horrible. Rocher is matched by Conti, who is an emotional blank slate for much of the film – that’s not a criticism, by the way – before being pushed to dramatic outbursts that reveal her conflicted feelings and desires – hating and loving her mother in equal part, wanting only to be treated like a normal child before realising that she might be asking more of her mother than it is possible for her to give. The ending of the film suggests a possible understanding being reached – though whether it is a final moment of reconciliation before more tragedy strikes is left ambiguously uncertain.
I don’t know how entertaining all this is, in truth – it’s very much a piece that will depend on your mood approaching it. Trinca is aware enough of the potential for relentless misery here to lighten things with moments of humour, pathos and the odd surreal encounter (the visit to the mother’s estranged family is almost Lynchian in its approach) and the film is visually impressive – enough to make the rather slow burn first act less of a deal breaker than it might have otherwise been. Like many a modern film, it’s also vague as to its time period – I might place this as taking place in the 1980s based mostly on the music choices that include OMD’s Enola Gay, but who can say? And does it actually matter?
In truth, I can’t honestly say just how much I liked this film. It is, however, the sort of thing that lingers long after you’ve watched it and that always suggests a film that is better than you might have initially given it credit for. Like the mother’s tales of kites and beaches, the memories of the film that you might be left with may not be entirely accurate, but they exist nonetheless – and that’s more than I can say for many movies.
Marcel! screens at Raindance on October 27th 2022.
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