“MADRE”— A Real Nightmare


A Real Nightmare

Amos Lassen

Co-writer/director Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s “Madre” is filled with shocks. The opening scene presents a parental nightmare in real time and the following story, as well as the filmmaker’s approach to it, is shocking, if only relative to how the film opens. Based on that first scene, we expect some kind of mystery or thriller, but instead, Sorogoyen and fellow screenwriter Isabel Peña gives us a story of deep melancholy and unfulfillable longing.

This story is quiet, tranquil, and methodical, offering unspoken but obviousmotives for a pair of characters who are connected by nothing aside from the desire to connect to each other. The prologue begins on an empty beach somewhere in France, before the scene transitions to an apartment somewhere in Spain. Elena (Marta Nieto) has returned home with her mother (Blanca Apilánez), and the two speak about the daughter’s dinner plans and her romantic opportunities. The conversation is ordinary but then, Elena receives a phone call. It’s from her 6-year-old son who is on a trip with the boy’s father, Elena’s ex-husband.

Iván, the son, is somewhere on a beach. His father is nowhere in sight, as he went back to the camper the two were traveling in to retrieve the boy’s toys. It has been a while and Iván is worried. He has no idea what beach he’s on or even which country it is located.

The grandmother takes over the conversation while Elena calls the police and the mother slowly realizes that help isn’t coming for her son. Elena tries to comfort her son as the direness of his situation becomes very clear. The boy eventually spots a man, a stranger, calling for him. There’s an unseen chase on the other end of the line, and shortly after, with a few words from an adult and unfamiliar voice, the call ends.

The scene lingers well into the story, which suddenly cuts back to the beach. People hang around and play, and words gradually form “10 years later”. Elena now lives here in this little town in France, filled with seasonal vacationers and only a few locals. She manages a beachside restaurant, lives alone in an apartment, and has a steady boyfriend named Joseba (Alex Brendemühl), who occasionally spends the night and wants Elena to move in with him somewhere away from this place. Joseba loves Elena but we cannot tell if she is ready to love again.

While walking on the beach, Elena spots a teenage boy named Jean (Jules Porier). His face, based only on her reaction, looks very familiar to her. She can’t stop looking and follows him to his home. He notices, and then, he can’t stop looking at Elena.

This relationship is complicated, to say the least, primarily because neither Elena nor Jean is willing or able to say what they want from it. We don’t hear, until much later (and from someone else), that Jean reminds Elena of her missing son, whose fate is never revealed, but the fact is apparent. We never hear Jean tell Elena, except in an occasional half-joke and in the climactic scene, what he wants from her. From his age and the way his eyes focus on her, we know exactly what the boy wants from this 39-year-old woman.

The boy lusts for the woman and she knows this, but she also ensures that nothing will happen. The boy is all  she has of her missing son—even if she also knows, deep down and less likely to be spoken, that this is all a fantasy formed of pain, uncertainty and grief.

The scenes between these two characters are like a dance filled with restrained emotions and a little dangerous. People, especially Joseba and the boy’s parents (played by Anne Consigny and Frédéric Pierrot)), start noticing how much time they spend together, although the rumors surrounding Elena’s history in town prevent people from assuming the worst.  What might this woman, dubbed a “psycho” by the vacationers and the locals, do in order to reclaim what she lost?

These scenes, which play out one way for Elena (whose looks and few touches are delicately maternal) and a completely different way for Jean (who flirts in the shy way of a boy whose experience with romance is limited). The performances from these two actors communicate so much without saying much at all.

We see the aftermath of traumatic loss in all of its ambiguity—how what we lose revisits us in disguise and how from the outside this haunting can appear, as more than one character refers to Elena, “psycho.” By projecting her despair into the landscape, Sorogoyen shows us her grief inside out, where it cannot be judged, only witnessed.