Florian Zeller's debut creatively immerses viewers into memory loss
Losing one’s memory is an affliction that is becoming more common as the life expectancy of human beings increases, be it by the common mental diseases of dementia or Alzheimer’s, or something else. To lose one’s sense of space and time is one of the cruelest conditions a human being can face, not only on the personal side but for the family unit as well. Most frustrating is the total helplessness that the victims feel on both sides of the illness. Films have attempted to explore dementia and Alzheimer’s for decades, but few have been able to grasp the seismic dimensions that it can wage on an individual’s world. The French film Amour (2012) was able to do so with a harrowing silence as we saw things mentally deteriorate from the healthy half of an elderly couple. New director Florian Zeller has dived into the oft unexplored side of the malady, that of the afflicted.
The Father (2020) is adapted from the French play from Zeller named “Le Pere.” It takes place nearly entirely indoors in an apartment flat in England. We follow Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) an elderly man who seems to be losing his memory. We see his daughter Anne (Olivia Coleman) scurry around the apartment trying to stabilize Anthony’s spinning world.
Zeller’s objective with The Father (as it was onstage) is to disorient the audience and to have us be in the shoes of Anthony. Similar to how Christopher Nolan played around with immersing viewers into an amnesiac character in Memento (2000), Zeller achieves his goal by playing with structure and technique. The entire narrative seems to flow as if it were one continuous scene for both Anthony and viewers, and yet time passes much different for the other “healthy” characters. Zeller uses various subtle techniques to throw viewers off, changing the furniture arrangement of the apartment from one scene to the next, or the colors of the walls. At various points, different actors come to play Anne and other acquaintances. Some scenes may play out normally, but be claimed as “never having happened” by characters a few seconds later. There are even identical moments played twice sometimes by the same actors, sometimes by others, or completely different characters.
Zeller’s brilliant concept of playing with space, color, and structure is the greatest achievement of The Father, as it truly puts viewers in the closest possible situation to what real people afflicted with such mental maladies endure. We grow frustrated and confused along with Anthony, and crumble within as he tries to play off his disorientation when other characters pat him on the head and sniff pretentiously. The creative solutions to bring about such immersion are truly harrowing in how they sink into viewers’ stomachs, with my personal viewing of the film growing more and more uncomfortable as I felt a fist clench in my chest. The Father will undoubtedly be an especially hard watch for viewers who have some personal proximity to the matter; the film might prove to be equally traumatic and cathartic for them.
Zeller is graced with two fabulous performers in the lead roles. If the French director didn’t have an ace cast, it would be hard to navigate the seemingly chaotic narrative. Hopkins is spectacular in a role that might actually be the best of his career – and I don’t say that lightly. He encapsulates both the exterior vision of what healthy people see dementia stricken patients undergo, while also being our personal guide in the labyrinthian exploration of his own deteriorating mind. His final scene completely breaks through to viewers, making us collapse in a pile of tears alongside him. Coleman meanwhile extracts a new form of silent and suffering stoicism, that is poignantly different from her work in The Crown (2016-). In The Father Coleman is able to dig into the helpless and vulnerable place, of wanting to be a source of comfort for her own father, while also feeling suffocated by its gravitational pull, all with the exterior sheen of being in control and smiling.
The Father is a brilliant work exploring the horrors and tragedies regarding losing one’s memory. First-timer Zeller brilliantly adapts and directs his play, using cinematic tools to the best of their potential to immerse viewers with the characters. We are also graced with stellar performances from the two lead roles in a film that while many viewers will be loth to revisit, is sure to stick in the back of your mind for a long while.