“Family Portrait” at Metrograph begins June 28

    34-year-old Lucy Kerr’s fascinating debut feature film “Family Portrait” (which won major awards at the recent Locarno Festival in Switzerland) is a “portrait” in both a visual and acoustic sense. It opens this Friday, June 28 at NYC’s Metrograph Theater. Director Kerr and lead actor Deragh Campbell will be in attendance at the Friday and Saturday screenings. Go here for tickets and more info.

    The film, which is best appreciated as a mystery which unfolds with a creepy feeling of possible terror, opens with a quote from Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 poem “The Conqueror Worm”: “Through a circle that ever returneth in/To the self-same spot.” Wikipedia interprets the poem thusly: “[it] seems to imply that human life is mad folly ending in hideous death, the universe is controlled by dark forces man cannot understand, and the only supernatural forces that might help are powerless spectators who can only affirm the tragedy of the scene.” (source)

    Filmed in ten days at Kerr’s grandparents’ home in Hunt, Texas, it opens with a four-minute sequence in which the family members, young and old, are moving around in a lush property full of wide oak trees with low branches, by a river (the Guadalupe). (Down stream in that river a flash flood in 1987 swept a church bus away resulting in the deaths of ten children.) The carefully choreographed participants seem to be avoiding as best they can what one woman (in a red dress, Annabelle, played to perfection by indie veteran performer Rachel Alig) is trying to create: a composition of all of them wearing red Santa hats she pulls from a cardboard box. They are going to pose for a Christmas photo. The contrast of that seasonal marker in the middle of summer adds to the mystery.

    The soundtrack in this sequence is muffled, ambient noise that gradually becomes intelligible. We know that audiences can put up with a lot of visual anarchy but cut the sound off or distort it and they can become confused, proving that the soundtrack is often more responsible for continuity than the picture editing.

    This is followed by a short scene of someone walking in a dark forest, either at dusk or early in the morning. Cut back now to the lawn, with Annabelle sitting down eating something from a blue cup. We already don’t like or trust this woman! Another woman reads notes for a chemistry experiment while lying in a hammock. (Perhaps she is a scientist of some sort. Is this why–we will later see–she alone seems to want to get to the bottom of what is happening?) Then cut to a child hiding within the hollow of a huge tree. Like something from a fairy tale.

    An older woman (the mother, Silvana Jakich) is seen behind a window screen accompanied by what seems like the sound of a million flies or the tone of wind passing by the opposite side of a speeding automobile’s window. Then we see the hammock woman (Katy, played by Deragh Campbell) talking in bed with her boyfriend Olek (Chris Galust.) She complains of insomnia. At first offscreen, she emerges and reads a text from her phone to him about a young woman whose mother’s gaze turns monstrous after the mother disappears. (The text is from Liora Goder’s essay, “What is a Woman and What is Feminine Jouissance in Lacan” and it explains–spoiler alert–one of the big secrets of the film.) Meanwhile, her Polish-American boyfriend says he has a “strange desire” to tell awkward jokes.

    The couple visit her parents’ library and she reads an except from Barbara Bush’s memoir about a trip to Russia with the Reagans. (Why do her folks have two copies?) For the next thirty minutes we see a series of (purposely) banal conversations–and this could alienate some audience members but please stick with it, everything here is a clue!–between the family members who have arrived for this annual gathering. There are babies, “sippy cups,” lost pets (with names like “Puffy” and “Fluffy”), New York Times recipes, true crime TV shows, sepsis, “toxic shock syndrome from a tampon,” the 2007 Hurricane Noel, a dog eaten by an alligator, “wrapping one’s head around things” and the horror of seeing evidence that a bird has crashed into a window of the house. (Ukrainian director Valentyn Vasyanovych’s 2022 film “Reflection” used such an unfortunate accident as a theme in that brilliant movie.)

    We meet the mother, who is the only one who speaks with a Southern accent. Why? She has one Mexican-American servant who helps her prepare the meal as she coaches Katy and Olek about the photo layout for this year’s Christmas Card.

    While a football game plays in the background, the father (Robert Salas) tells the story of how a photograph (which we never see) of his father being shot in WWII was repurposed as a photo of a fallen Vietnam War soldier. He also praises John Carpenter’s 1988 classic of paranoia and ideology “They Live,” in which a magical pair of sunglasses reveals the true meaning of billboard signs and other advertisements. We gradually discern that the parents are conservative though they don’t talk about politics here.

    An aging handyman sprays WD-40 on gardening implements. There is wind in the trees. A lot of wind in the trees! (François Truffaut once said that what was missing from contemporary American films was “the wind in the trees.”) Two stepsons in similar outfits (khakis and blue shirts) laugh while recalling a famous internet incident from 1991–The Trojan Room coffee pot.

    When word comes that a 21-year-old cousin has suddenly died, the father worries that she may have caught something in the hospital. Kerr has said the film is set in the early days of COVID but there is no reference to it in the movie.

    An red bug (a centipede?) approaches Katy’s sister Laura (Veronica Cinibulk) as she sleeps on the lawn. Maybe this represents “the conqueror worm?” From the fourth stanza of the Poe poem:

    “But see, amid the mimic rout/A crawling shape intrude!/A blood-red thing that writhes from out/The scenic solitude!”

    Annabelle, who taps her fingers nervously while talking, says that “being able to visualize an image in your brain is a sign of genius.” (WTF? Well I guess I’m a genius!) Another sister says when she tries to do that she always sees the same green squirrel.

    Katy is the only one who notices that her mother is missing and goes on an odd journey accompanied by intense noises that sound like helicopter blades. (The handyman had just related a story about Huey choppers in Vietnam.) She dives into the brackish green water of the river. Vultures (they look like vultures) later appear on a rock two of her sisters were sunbathing on. What does it all mean?

    In the introduction to his 2016 book “The Weird and the Eerie,” the late Mark Fisher wrote, “The serenity that is often associated with the eerie–think of the phrase eerie calm–has to do with detachment from the urgencies of the everyday.” A recent internet trend has involved posting photos of “liminal space,” photos of landscapes with no one present where people ought to be present. The final sequence of Antonioni’s 1962 film “L’Eclisse” consists of shots of places the protagonists visited earlier in the movie, now emptied of humans.

    At least one critic has compared the film’s feeling to Antonioni’s 1960 classic “L’Avventura” but I think Bunuel’s 1962 “The Exterminating Angel” may also be a cousin. Consider the unusual stasis many of the family members seem to be practicing. The children are all over-stimulated by sugar (and maybe ADHD medications) while the adults feel transformed into an inert, reflective state as if they all had eaten pot gummies. Recall that in the cartoon strip “Peanuts” when the parents talk their words are represented by unintelligible sounds.

    It’s a huge coup for Kerr to have made such a brilliant first film and to have assembled a fantastic cast and crew. Director of Photography Lidia Nikonova uses Steadicam cinematography expertly in very scary walking sequences and makes color choices that reveal an awareness of the photography of young artists like Laura June Kirsch who once did portraits of her well-off Long Island family members languishing in the heat of summer days. But this film was shot in the Hill Country section of Texas in a town featuring a replica of Stonehenge (not shown in the film). The sound design by Andrew Siedenburg and others is also very impressive. I remember a screening by Yvonne Rainer in which she asked the audience to “turn up your ears and turn down your eyes.” You’ll need to turn both up to truly appreciate this very mysterious work.

    “Family Portrait” is only a 72-minute film but it will rattle your nerves in such a good way you’ll be thinking it about it for hours. I can’t wait to see what Lucy Kerr makes next.

    Go here to read an interview with the director. Four of her early shorts will accompany the film when it appears on the Metrograph streaming service beginning July 5. I have seen all of them:

    Lydon” (2018). Less than three minutes long, this a single shot, in reverse, with some red material being swooped up magically that surrounds performance artist Lydon Frank Lettuce on a bed.

    Sensible Ecstasy” (2019) Just a bit over five minutes, this is also a single sequence slow motion shot of a woman’s face while riding a roller-coaster. The soundtrack may suggest the sonic experience of a child in a mother’s womb. The woman seems to be experiencing ecstasy or fear. Kerr dedicated this short to Renee Falconetti, the great star of Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” whose closeups brought the character played by Anna Karina to tears in a wonderful scene in Godard’s 1962 film “Vivre Sa Vie.”

    Crashing Waves” (2021) At 18-plus minutes, this is Kerr’s longest short film to date. Kerr reads a monologue based on testimony by veteran stunt performer Jess Harbeck about her naivete while performing a dangerous car stunt over a cliff into the ocean below. An overhead shot of the sea and rocks beneath a Malibu road both resonates with the danger and aesthetic appeal of images performed “for SAG daily scale with a stunt dividend.” Finally, footage of a female stunt performer (Kelli Scarangello) from an episode of “The Exorcist” 2016-17 TV series ironically depicts the male-dominated profession.

    Site Of Passage” (2022) This seven-minute film captures a small circle of female preteens using mime and ritualized games to explore trust, group creativity and language.

    Lucy Kerr was asked to select one film that influenced her. She chose Hiroshi Teshigaharas first film, “Pitfall” (1962) and it will screen twice at the Metrograph.

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