April is the cruelest mum in Michel Franco’s Un Certain Regard entry April’s Daughter. The Mexican director and Cannes favourite has produced another disturbing character study, following Tim Roth’s obsessive nurse in Chronic which screened a mere two years ago.
April’s Daughter stars Pedro Almodóvar regular Emma Suarez as April, an estranged mother who after an absence steps once more into the lives of her two grownup daughters: 17-year-old Valeria (Valeria Becerril) and older, quieter Clara (Joanna Larequi), who runs a printing shop and does all the adult stuff while a heavily pregnant Valeria has noisy afternoon sex with her curly-haired boyfriend Mateo (Enrique Arrizon).
On hearing about the pregnancy, April shows up and soothes her daughter’s worry. She isn’t here to judge, just to help. She also had Clara when she was about Valeria’s age. She also take Mateo out for a drink to cast a protective eye over a future son-in-law. Mateo’s own family are hostile and unwilling to countenance any help. Refusing even to see the baby when Mateo’s father comes to the maternity ward to fetch him home. April fills the gap with a renewed vigour.
In keeping with Franco’s austere storytelling style – no music, a fixed camera, minimal editing – there are likewise no explanations about the intervening years, or incidents. We gradually understand April is someone wandering through her life with vague ideas of doing a yoga website, just because she enjoys doing yoga. She gradually takes over all the responsibilities for the child, and following a relatively trivial piece of bad mothering by Valeria takes drastic action.
What follows is a strange criminal undertaking of both kidnapping and life hijack: a kind of Talented Mr. Ripley meets Jeremy Kyle. Although April’s behaviour is monstrous, Suarez plays her with a genuine sympathy. She is a woman who can’t truly relate to her young daughters without a competitive glint in her eye. It is this suppressed resentment at ageing that ultimately begins to take over and supersedes the love she should feel for her daughters. Valeria is played with brilliantly by Becerril, whose precocious beauty and naivety are burned away through suffering to reveal some of her mother’s steel. Clara gets short shrift and April’s help on her body issues could either be seen as well-meaning or passive-aggressively domineering.
Franco has a hardlined style and a kind of story that play like an apprentice Haneke. However, as each film arrives, the power diminishes, because the stories are now easily predictable. If a character has to decide between decency and doing something awful, they’ll usually do the latter. The monstrosity of the actions also makes April’s Daughter work less effectively as social criticism – again, like Jeremy Kyle. There is a danger with a style so firmly established it will become a kind of prison that traps Franco as effectively as his stories trap the characters who inhabit them.