Locarno 2017: Freedom review


Jan Speckenbach’s second film Freedom feels as trapped by its portentous one-word title – there’s a quote about the River Lethe at the beginning as well – as its protagonist Nora (Johanna Wokalek) is trapped by the paradox of feeling compelled to be free.

We first see Nora wandering about an art gallery, then sitting on the bus and riding it to the terminus. And then picking up a young man at a supermarket and having sex with him. And then hitchhiking to Bratislava. It’s fairly drab as far as bucket lists go and, throughout her quest, Nora seems fearful and uncertain, her emotional weather as grey as the drizzle that dampens everything throughout the film.

Meanwhile, her husband Philip (Hans-Jochen Wagner), a bearish lawyer who lumbers through his life, taxiing the kids around and struggling with a tough case at work. He’s been charged with representing a teenager who’s beaten an African refugee into a coma. He visits the comatose man and uses the opportunity to offload his own angst, his guilt and worry. He participates in a TV show in the hope of finding some clue as to Nora’s whereabouts and is in the midst of an affair with one of Nora’s friends, Monika (Inga Birkenfeld).

Nora’s initially episodic flight begins to slow and she befriends an erotic dancer Etela (Andrea Szabova) and her partner Tamas (Ondrej Koval), a cook at a hotel where Nora finds work as a maid. Philip’s problems centre increasingly on his eldest daughter Lena (Rubina Labusch) who discovers his affair with Monika and herself begins to act out. There’s a risk that this family is going to go to pieces, though his troubles at work with the difficult case is forgotten and when the victim wakes from his two month long coma, it feels like an afterthought and has no bearing on the story at all.

It’s all very fraught and melodramatic and we are kept in the dark about Nora’s reasons for leaving until the very end. Was there a motivating incident or was she just oppressed by her wealth, comfort and safety? It’s obvious that Nora is struck by a deep ennui but a viewer might understandably ask if Bratislava is the right answer. Nora’s lack of direction is perhaps part of her flight against the constraints of her own agency, but the haircut she chooses is unforgivably bad. Visually Freedom aspires to something more with memories of Nora projected on Philip’s wall during his infidelity (is it infidelity?) and fireworks projected on their bodies for no real reason, but to brighten the place up. Their stories also link in a series of slightly contrived echoes: some post-coital hand fondling and a domestic incident with a spider is repeated.

It doesn’t help Freedom’s credibility that the script keeps having the people Nora meets on her travels spout pearls of wisdom, sometimes in a second or third language. A woman who gives her a lift has an Australian hitchhiker already on board. He glibly sums up the various populations he has encountered in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. The driver tells Nora witheringly: “When he gets home he’ll be as stupid as when he left.” Likewise, underneath the despair and the bourgeois anxiety – we have an obligatory middle class guilt scene about racism – there’s something deeply tedious going on.

The Locarno Film Festival takes place from 2-12 August 2017. For more info: pardo.ch

John Bleasdale | @drjonty

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