Mother Dearest: Lara (2019)

Lara begins as the story of a suicide postponed, and the question that hangs over the film is whether it will end with Lara finishing what she began. Even before she gets the chair and steps on it, it’s clear that Lara isn’t just looking out of the window to enjoy the view of Berlin. There’s something in how she holds herself that seems… defeated, perhaps. This is not a woman who sees her life as a bouquet of possibilities. This is a woman who has had enough. Enough of what, though? Of whom?

Quite literally, Lara (a brittle, nuanced Corinna Harfouch) is saved by the bell, at least for now: two policemen ask her to witness the search of another flat in the same building. The flat’s main occupant is a man roughly the same age as Lara and clearly infatuated with her, but Lara manages to uphold minimal standards of politeness while at the same time indicating her utter disinterest. When the policemen ask for her ID and notice that it’s her birthday today, and her sixtieth at that, it is already clear that Lara isn’t much one for small talk or indeed for most forms of human interaction. She brushes off the men’s congratulations much as she brushes off people in general, with a demeanour indicating that people don’t measure up to her exacting standards.

Structurally, Lara is reminiscent of director Jan-Ole Gerster’s 2012 film, Oh Boy (which was released as A Coffee in Berlin in the English-speaking world), in which we accompany a young, aimless man on a one-day odyssey through the German capital. Lara also consists of brief encounters over the period of a single day, but our abrasive protagonist has at least one clear goal in mind: her son Victor (played by Oh Boy‘s lead Tom Schilling), a concert pianist, is to give a big concert in the evening, complete with a composition of his own. It quickly becomes clear that Victor and his mother aren’t exactly on speaking terms, just as Lara isn’t really on speaking terms with anyone, and her ex-husband strongly suggests to her that she leaves her son in peace on what is the most important day of his career. Lara’s reaction to this is to buy the 22 remaining tickets and we accompany her as she tries to distribute these, often with little success, to former colleagues, relatives, the friendly neighbour from downstairs, her own former piano teacher, and finally strangers she bumps into.

These might be the oddball but caring, heartfelt actions of a doting mother, but a tense encounter between Lara and Victor halfway through the day indicates that she may not exactly have been the most supporting parent. She tries, though: after catching a glimpse of the sheet music of Victor’s composition, she first volunteers praise about how witty it is, how surprising. How personable – perhaps too personable, too willing to please, she says, unable to stop herself. Her words are like a surgeon’s scalpel: the cuts she inflicts aren’t big, but they are precise and they cut to the quick. They, and Victor’s flinching yet unsurprised reaction, hint at years of instinctive disappointment poisoning Lara’s relationships with those closest to her. She can’t help but communicate to Victor how he, as much as anyone else, doesn’t quite measure up to her own expectations. And, most critically, neither does Lara herself. She sees herself surrounded by failures that she is required to tolerate, but essentially she considers herself a failure too – and that, the beginning of the film suggests, is something she is no longer able to tolerate.

Lara isn’t original in its subject matter: we’ve seen mothers like her, wielding subtle disapproval like a sharp weapon, and we’ve seen characters who have pushed everyone else away and now find that they don’t particularly enjoy their own company. What it is, however, is a tour de force by Harfouch: she never once sentimentalises Lara, but as she adds layers and subtle touches here and there, complicating our image of the character, we develop a sense for her pain, the hairline fracture that goes through her own being. The moment-to-moment writing helps, adding touches of wit and humour to what could otherwise become unbearably dour – and even if the plot finally provides a somewhat pat explanation for Lara’s inability to engage with people without putting them down, its delivery lands, and the script rarely spells out her motivations or emotions explicitly, leaving more than enough nuance for Harfouch to fill in.

Gerster also has a fantastic ally in cinematographer Frank Griebe, a frequent collaborator of Tom Tykwer (from Run Lola Run to The Perfume and more recent productions such as the Netflix series Sense8). Griebe has an eye for striking (but not showy) compositions depicting Lara’s wanderings through Berlin, and there is a supremely striking frame late in the film that illustrates the emptiness in Lara’s life with absolute perfection.

Lara‘s strengths, its assured direction, often smart writing, the strong performances by Harfouch as well as her supporting cast, and the cinematography: all these work together to create a portrait of a woman that starts off bleak but develops into unexpected directions by the end. The film ends on a bravura musical performance, and then a silence – possibly the end of the piece, possibly a pause, a moment to catch one’s breath before a second movement that didn’t seem possible before.

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