Berlin Patrick Gamble

Berlin 2017: My Happy Family review


★★★★☆

With their debut feature In Bloom, directing duo Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross showed how even after Georgia gained its independence in the 1990s, its women remained constrained by a staunchly patriarchal society. Their follow-up turns the clocks forward to the present day to show how little has changed. Switching the focus from youth to adulthood, My Happy Family is an acutely-observed drama about Manana (Ia Shugliashvili), a 52-year-old literature teacher and her decision to leave her family and live alone.

The film opens on Manana as she peruses a rental apartment in a working-class corner of Tbilisi. The woman renting the apartment tells her about the good luck the flat brings before asking is she has a family of her own. We then cut to the house Manana shares with her parents, her husband, her children and her son-in-law. The constant bickering and noise has clearly become too much for her, but there doesn’t seem to be a fixed reason for wanting to move out. Her husband doesn’t drink or beat her, and her mother does all the housework, but she decides on her birthday it’s time to leave.

Manana refuses to justify her actions but her family won’t accept her decision and, every time she begins to feel like she’s entangled herself from the roots of her family tree, something or someone pops up to draw her back. Lensed by Tudor Vladimir Panduru, who recently shot Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation, My Happy Family unfolds in an unhurried manner through a series of long takes, the camera stalking Manana endlessly like a family member who won’t leave her alone. Although the manner it unfurls is more functional than elegant, the subtly of Panduru’s naturalistic camerawork doesn’t go unnoticed, making the chaos of Manana’s parent’s cramped apartment feel like a beautifully choreographed dance – albeit one where the man always takes the lead.

Watching Manana struggle to achieve self-actualisation is a suffocating experience and, with the exception of one tranquil scenes in which she’s observed enjoying a slice cake and listening to classical music in her new flat, this is a melting pot of familial tension and anxiety. However, for all its fundamental seriousness, My Happy Family is gilded with a rich vein of black humour, with the film’s comedy emerging from the nuanced and intuitive interactions between the family. When they’re all present there’s barely a moment of silence, the meaningless wall-of-noise their arguments create detracting from the larger sociopolitical issues that lay dormant, waiting to explode off-camera.

Despite the technical flare and enjoyable cast dynamics, My Happy Family is Shugliashvil’s film. She’s not just the focus of the story: she’s literally never off the screen, delivering an immensely sympathetic performance – a hauntingly passive mix of resignation and rage that’s truly unforgettable. My Happy Family isn’t a simple tale of one woman’s emancipation, it’s a universal tale about the personal and societal entrapment of women, with all three generations of women in the film at some point dealing with their own men troubles. A low-key yet complex family drama, My Happy Family is a quietly devastating portrait of what it means to be a woman in a man’s world.

The Berlin Film Festival takes place between 9-19 February. Follow our coverage here.

Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble