Tackling issues of mental health and trauma, Swiss-Peruvian director Klaudia Reynicke’s second feature is a strange, charming and occasionally confusing journey into isolation. Love Me Tender is buoyed by an eccentric lead performance from Barbara Giordano and a tight, claustrophobic visual style that nicely juxtaposes with Seconda (Giordano)’s agoraphobia.
Living at home with her emotionally distant parents, Seconda is in an arrested childhood, silently practising dance moves in her bedroom, decorated for a young teenager. And like a teenager, she is prone to throwing temper tantrums and seeking attention from her parents who are, in their dingy house, themselves trapped in a sort of torpor that is surely related to Seconda’s refusal to go outside.
Things worsen when Seconda discovers her mother dead at the dining table. Tellingly, it takes a while for both Seconda to realise she has expired, such is the extent of her languorous existence. Her father’s subsequent retreat into himself is a form of emotional agoraphobia that is arguably more severe than Seconda’s, until he disappears altogether, leaving a two-word note and Seconda to her fate.
Left to her own devices, Seconda retreats further into childish fantasy, allowing her badly-kept goldfish to die and rot in their tank while she scrounges for remnants of food, much to the detriment of her pet cat. Her only company is a series of threatening answer machine messages left by her father’s increasingly irate creditor, with whom she develops a bizarre quasi-romantic relationship. Love Me Tender’s middle section, with its dirge-like atmosphere, is its most intriguing, building a sense of inescapability as Seconda’s prospects look increasingly bleak. The dark comedy of her predicament is underscored as she hurls pebbles from her bedroom window at a group of passing schoolchildren, and later accidentally skewers her cat with an arrow in a failed suicide attempt.
Trapped in time, Seconda’s name hints at a family secret buried in the past, while her emergence into the outside world with the assistance of hapless local boy Santo (Antonio Bannò), and several encounters with an antagonistic young girl further blur the lines between reality and fantasy. A comically disastrous search for food in the local supermarket is followed by a vision of Seconda’s deceased cat, leading her to the mysterious girl who may or may not hold the key to her suffering. Meanwhile, a furtive episode in the woods suggests that Seconda is not the only one suffering from isolation, and a subplot involving her father’s creditor is brilliant in is comic awkwardness.
Love Me Tender is at its best in its lightly surrealist suggestions, while its eccentric tone is equally comic and unsettling. The early interior sequences conjure a listless, humid texture that chimes perfectly with the film’s exploration of mental illness and unspoken familial resentment, while its generosity towards the equally eccentric characters around Seconda proffers a messy sense of humanity. Nevertheless, the causal explanation for Seconda and her father’s dysfunctional relationship robs us of that messiness, delivering an unnecessary catharsis when the mystery of interiority would have done just fine.
The 44th Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 5-15 September.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell