Friday 22 June 2018

On demand: "My Happy Family"

The Georgian-based couple Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross made a striking debut in 2013 with In Bloom, a coming-of-age drama that introduced a handgun in the first act by way of an extra element of narrative jeopardy. Their richly detailed follow-up My Happy Family - which has taken its international bow not in cinemas, but on Netflix - introduces us to Manana (Ia Shugliashvili), a middle-aged teacher who shares a flat in downtown Tbilisi with her loving husband, overbearing parents, and a teenage daughter and son. This set-up would seem a pretty standard picture were there again not a gun waiting to go off, this time in the form of a secret revealed to us in the very first scene: Ma is investigating the option of moving out of this long-settled abode, and into a place by herself. Fifteen minutes into My Happy Family, and you have the happy sensation of stumbling upon something you haven't really seen before in a movie: a character who desires nothing more than a little peace, space and quiet, who wants everybody up to and possibly including the camera to leave her alone.

True, there may have been flickers and glimpses of this elsewhere in cinema history. The film's first part recalls Chantal Akerman's totemic Jeanne Dielman... reshaped and refocused as a thriller rather than statement of feminist intent, a domestic prison break where our heroine spends every overcrowded scene drumming her fingers, avoiding her relatives' gaze, and looking to some far horizon. One complication of our sympathies is that the family under scrutiny aren't terrible or abusive, just a tad stuffy and traditional in their attitudes: the malefolk bluff and brusque or - in the son's case - hopelessly mollycoddled, the elders banging on about the same values that were drilled into them, hanging around as a constant reminder to this unhappy housewife that her societal fate always was to marry young and pick up the laundry. 

Around them, Ekvtimishvili and Gross once again demonstrate their considerable savvy as dramatists. We get nothing so obvious and expected as the moment in which Ma drops the bomb on this household, rather a brisk, funny thumbnail sketch of its aftermath: hubby tersely smoking on the balcony, grandma retreating to the sofa with a cold compress on her forehead. Even when Manana makes a run for it, her problems aren't over. It proves a tricky business, attempting to forge a new life with loved ones at your heels, urging you to come back; even taking a couple of steps in the direction of independence - popping out to the market for supplies, say - obliges Manana to see her family from new angles. The longhair squiring her daughter is spotted with his arm around another girl; more poignantly, she gains a new insight into her own relationship. Does she intervene, or keep the distance she's sought out for herself? Life is more complicated than the bulk of our movies trouble themselves to be.

These self-effacing directors - reducing themselves to a rather cute "Nana and Simon" in the credits - pack all this conflict in without a single camera movement that draw attention to itself. Instead, they keep the frame mobile, the better to spot the contrasting, sometimes conflicting perspectives that arise from close, attentive study of people crammed into the same room, city, universe. In this, and their fine-tuned ensemble, these filmmakers seem close to the Iranian master Asghar Farhadi ("A Separation" would make a fine alternative title here), although Farhadi has never quite arrived as anything as lyrical as the sequence in which Ma fixes herself a modest snack and sits down to strum the guitar that her departure has loosed from storage: here, at last, is that time and space for which this character has so keenly fought.

Such sequences suggest that Ekvtimishvili and Gross - all right, Nana and Simon - are alert to the possibility of positive change in the world, which distinguishes them from all those arthouse Cassandras presently doing the rounds; there's a flexibility in their approach that explains both how My Happy Family remains unpredictable through to its closing seconds, and its makers' willingness to embrace new distribution models. (One genuine first here: the sight of the words "a Netflix Original presentation" rendered in Georgian script.) Of course, those Cassandras - and even Farhadi - have logged between one and three decades on the festival circuit, which ensures them a framework of financing and distribution to operate within. Nana and Simon have had to rely on Netflix deploying its newfound wealth as a safety net, no matter that it may mean notable films such as theirs being swallowed up among endless teen romances and Adam Sandler freebies. There My Happy Family is, all the same, just a button-click away from where you read this - and its emergence on this format does offer the intriguing prospect of this quietly insurrectionary drama being readily available in households where somebody else is doing their darnedest to break or get away.

My Happy Family is now available on Netflix.  

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