When par­ents out­live a child

Aris’ award-win­ning ‘The Swing’ is a unique ex­am­i­na­tion of grief, lone­li­ness

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - ARTS & CULTURE - By Jim Quilty

EL-GOUNA, Egypt: Much as we’re as­saulted by it in TV news, it’s hard to watch old peo­ple suf­fer. At its worst, doc­u­men­tary film that dwells on late-life mis­ery, and the pathos it pro­vokes, can seem cruel for its op­por­tunism.

Cyril Aris’ “The Swing” doc­u­ments a com­pli­cated story of grief ex­pe­ri­enced by an elderly cou­ple.

The 74-minute doc­u­men­tary is suf­fused with sad­ness, yet it pon­ders some im­por­tant eth­i­cal ques­tions about truth and mor­tal­ity.

Aris’ fea­ture-length film de­but pre­miered last week at El-Gouna Film Fes­ti­val, where it emerged from the doc­u­men­tary com­pe­ti­tion with the third-place prize.

“The Swing” opens with a nicely framed, grainy tableau of a room as seen from an in­te­rior hall­way. Sit­ting at one edge of a couch a lady, Vi­viane, snif­fles into a tele­phone as she tries to dial a num­ber. No one an­swers.

In the next se­quence, the cam­era gazes into a room that opens onto a bal­cony. The loom­ing skele­ton of a tower un­der con­struc­tion so dom­i­nates the sky­line, it may take a sec­ond or two to no­tice the slouched form of An­toine, an older gen­tle­man sit­ting, back to the cam­era.

Di­vided into two chap­ters – “Win­ter” and “Sum­mer” – the film fol­lows the lives of An­toine and Vi­viane over six months or so of sus­tained trauma.

The ab­sent cen­ter of this story is Marie-Therese. De­picted as the most at­ten­tive of An­toine and Vi­viane’s chil­dren, the 50-some­thing MarieTherese was in Ar­gentina when she abruptly died of heart fail­ure.

Upon re­ceiv­ing news of MarieTherese’s shock­ing death, her sib­lings had to de­cide what to tell their ail­ing par­ents – the film­maker’s grand­par­ents. Their so­lu­tion com­pelled Aris to shoot this film.

Vi­viane is phys­i­cally ro­bust, so her chil­dren told her the full story of her daugh­ter’s death, and put her on a course of tran­quil­iz­ers. An­toine, on the other hand, is so frail that his kids feared the news would kill him.

So when he asks where MarieTherese is (as he does re­peat­edly over the course of the film) they tell him she’s still in Ar­gentina.

On one level the dis­hon­esty is un­der­stand­able. Why risk the death of the fa­ther so soon af­ter the pass­ing of the daugh­ter? There is also some­thing cruel about the de­ci­sion.

Af­ter al­most 65 years of mar­riage, it’s im­pos­si­ble for Vi­viane to share her grief with her hus­band. An­toine is left to puz­zle over his once-dot­ing daugh­ter’s ex­tended ab­sence and the gnaw­ing ache of lone­li­ness. The fam­ily’s ef­forts to ex­tend An­toine’s life ef­fec­tively push him and Vi­viane into an emo­tional iso­la­tion they can­not share.

The film alights upon the cou­ple dur­ing fam­ily cel­e­bra­tions (An­toine’s 90th birth­day, for in­stance) as well as banal in­ter­ludes, as when their do­mes­tic ser­vant, Tiji, strug­gles to get him to eat.

For con­text, Aris some­times draws upon home movie footage from the early 1990s and stills from photo al­bums to show the cou­ple in hap­pier, more youth­ful days.

“The Swing” doc­u­ments the cruel ironies of An­toine and Vi­viane’s latelife predica­ment. More than that, the film traces the mis­matched de­cline of shared ag­ing – an asym­me­try that some call com­ple­men­tar­ity.

Vi­viane may be phys­i­cally strong, for in­stance, but her daugh­ter’s loss has ru­ined her emo­tion­ally. When not sob­bing, she tries to coax An­toine to dis­tract her with a story from the old days. In­creas­ingly deaf, An­toine of­ten has trou­ble hear­ing what she’s say­ing. More than once she veers close to telling him the truth of their daugh­ter’s ab­sence.

While phys­i­cally frag­ile, An­toine is still sharp-wit­ted. He lis­tens – com­pre­hend­ing if mys­ti­fied – as his kids tell him about the lat­est news from Ar­sal, the Le­banese bor­der town briefly over­run by Is­lamist mil­i­tants.

When in high spir­its, he likes em­bar­rass­ing his wife with pro­fes­sions of love – singing torch songs to her in Ital­ian, a lan­guage she doesn’t un­der­stand – and re­call­ing for the cam­era how she was the most beau­ti­ful wo­man he’d ever met.

Each time An­toine is told Marie-Therese is still abroad, he nods, un­smil­ing, as if mak­ing quiet cal­cu­la­tions. At such mo­ments, it’s easy to won­der whether – as Vi­viane sus­pects – he’s on to the ruse.

Af­ter re­view­ing some footage from a fam­ily gath­er­ing shot in 1991, Vi­viane can be heard lament­ing that she no longer feels alive.

“There’s noth­ing to be done about it,” An­toine replies in one of sev­eral ob­ser­va­tions on the na­ture of mor­tal­ity. “We are, all of us, spec­ta­tors and ac­tors.”

Di­vided into two chap­ters, the film fol­lows the lives of An­toine and Vi­viane over six months or so of sus­tained trauma.

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