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A deeply scarred Renate Reinsve delivers an impressive performance, in this ambitious however meandering classroom drama - live from Cannes

QUICK AND DIRTY: LIVE FROM CANNES

The character Armand, a six-year-old child, only appears in one scene, but his presence is felt throughout the movie. He’s the focus of junior teacher Sunna’s mind (Thea Lambrechts Vaulen), who has called Armand’s mother Elisabeth (played by the meteoric Renate Reinsve) in for an emergency meeting. Upon arriving, Elisabeth is disturbed to discover it’s just the two of them; the text with the “happy face” suggested that it would be a friendly chat with fellow guardians. And then her sister-in-law Sarah (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) walks in, complaining that her nephew Armand has interfered with her son Jon (the word “anal” features in the school’s report). Elisabeth is horrified, not least because she should have been told the news before meeting Sarah and Sarah’s husband Anders (Endre Hellestveit).

The meeting swiftly escalates, prompting headmaster Jarle (Øystein Røger) to take over the discussions. Seated between two angry women, Anders becomes something of a calmer voice, and explains to the teachers that the family dynamic changed in the years since the death of Armand’s father, Thomas. What should have the runtime of a television play is inexplicably padded out into a near two-hour feature, and in the absence of interesting narrative arcs or interesting character development, director Halfdan Ullmann Tøndel employs a series of sight gags, choreography numbers and dream sequences to keep the audiences engaged.

What starts off as an interesting character study in family relations snowballs into something sillier and soap-like, which is reflected in the arguments/discussions which start off controlled, before spiralling into hysteria. Armand stumbles early on in the film, precisely because it pushes what should be a simple story into something meandering and pointless. Petersen’s Sarah comes off worse, because she’s forced to parade around like a pantomime villain, hissing and screaming at the woman she believes is responsible for her brother’s death.

Tøndel introduces humour early on in the film, which helps deflate the aura of sexual assault, but some of the jokes – a protracted nose-bleed, a monologue on Frozen‘s (Chris Buck &Jennifer Lee, 2013) relevance in modern-day Norway, a tap-dance number soundtracked by barrelhouse piano and jazz drums – are crassly realised, and performed with faint embarrassment. Out of all the actors, Reinsve has the best comic timing, which is evident from the way Elisabeth laughs giddily, and with scant regard for her colleagues. Anders is frustratingly under-nourished as a character, and only stands to provide exposition for the staff, and the audience. He sympathises with Elisabeth – it is implied that he fancies her – but stands by his wife, the woman who lost a beloved sibling to a “tragic accident.”

As it happens, the school doubles as a portal for Elisabeth and Sarah, who are transported back to the more care-free days of school and common jollity. Their philosophies are clearly outlined: Elisabeth sees the good in Armand, while Sarah is determined to comment on his bad characteristics. Meanwhile Sunna – the exasperated teacher who tries to calmly arrange a compromise between the mothers – is forced to question the ethics of her institution, who are considering taking a more immediate and legal approach. At the back of everyone’s mind is a six-year-old, who could be placed in questionable care if the appropriate measures aren’t met.

As a story, it holds purpose, but there are too many plot points that go unanswered: glaringly, an intriguing diversion concerning the other parents at the school finishes almost as quickly as it starts. The school is darkly lit, a tactic that obscures some of Reinsve’s more impressive moments; Elisabeth has been deeply scarred by “difficulties” since becoming a widow. And then there’s a rain scene, drowning the cast with a metaphorical weight the picture has sorely missed. Armand’s ambitions are noble, but ultimately are spread too thin; falling flat, like raindrops bouncing off a school roof.

Armand just premiered in the Un Certain Regard section of the 77th Cannes International Film Festival.


By Eoghan Lyng - 18-05-2024

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