Belgian directors Ann Sirot and Raphaël Balboni‘s first feature length film, ‘Madly In Life‘ (aka ‘Une Vie Démente‘) has a way of blending genres with their surroundings, sometimes letting actions and exteriors speak louder than words. Their tragicomedy makes a worst case scenario feel much lighter where these types of subjects usually get turned into a full on tearjerker. Even then, the tragedy still manages to hit so much harder, eventually breaking through the barriers of comedy, making the happiness on screen break your heart in the most compassionate ways.
Alex and Noémie, in their thirties, would like to have a child. But their plans are turned upside down when Alex’s mother, Suzanne, starts doing crazy stuff. It’s because she has contracted ‘semantic dementia’, a fatal neurodegenerative disease that affects her behaviour. She spends lavishly, pays nightly visits to her neighbours to eat sandwiches, makes herself a fake driver’s license with glue and scissors and follows her robot lawn mower around the backyard. Suzanne the mother slowly turns into Suzanne the unmanageable kid. A strange school of parenting for Noémie and Alex.
Growing up, I’ve seen my own grandmother fade away due to Alzheimer’s. Watching Suzanne’s (Jo Deseure – ‘Traceless‘) behaviour change drastically, to the point of no longer being able of staying out of trouble made me laugh often, because that’s the only thing you can do in such crazy situations. On the other hand, it made me feel so sad, I could no longer hold back tears. Coming to terms knowing a close relative’s memory and personality is disappearing, when you haven’t even figured out your own life, feels like as if everything suddenly gets flipped upside down. The same thing happens to thirty-something couple Alex (Jean Le Peltier – ‘Trop Belge Pour Toi‘) and Noémie (Lucie Debay – ‘Cabarete‘). You don’t think about life ending, when you’ve just started making plans. All of a sudden this young couple has to take care of more than just themselves.
Semantic dementia is just like Alzheimer’s, but attacks a part of the brain that’s in control of language and behaviour. The sick person start to lose their inhibitions, no longer aware of social codes or in Suzanne’s case even greeting strangers while being naked. Alex and his partner see their life change more and more and with that, the set designers also make a visual change in their bedroom, where the floral print of their bed sheets slowly starts taking over the entire room while they grow further apart. This visually astonishing highlight also happens whenever the young couple (later also accompanied by Suzanne) meet with doctors, bank directors, etc., by playing with the colour of the room they’re meeting in and the clothing they wear, fully blending together.
Suzanne is a joyful presence when we first meet her, and she still is, even when her illness completely takes control over her. But she’s no longer the mother Alex once knew. He denies her change of appearance, because it upsets him more than he likes to admit. He will eventually learn how to cope with his embarrassment, finding a way to love this new version of his mother.
Deseure is phenomenal, even by this actor’s celebrated standards. Her performance keeps growing, constantly changing tiny details in gestures and expressions. As funny as some of her character’s actions are, just as shattering it becomes when you start to think about the seriousness of it all. You care about Suzanne, because Deseure makes it so easy to do so. The other performances, especially Le Peltier and Debay’s, are just as moving while it never feels as if they’re acting, but more like an actual family going through the motions.
Vivaldi’s music is an important part of Suzanne’s life, and fits well with Sirot and Balboni’s aesthetic. The camera work changes from shaky cam in rather confined environments during interviews, to perfectly positioned steady angles when we move freely around in open areas. An interesting way of playing with images, and it works in the most bizarre of ways. The director’s duo’s first feature is a home-run in every single way, and easily one of the finest films I’ve seen this year.
In ways, ‘Madly in Life‘ is a coming of age story. Sirot and Balboni’s film will touch a lot of people, and not just those who’ve seen relatives affected by dementia. Accepting change is never easy, but loving someone doesn’t change just because they have.
FIFF2020 Review – ‘Une Vie Démente’
Reviewed online (screener provided by publicist), October 5, 2020. Rating: TBC. Running time: 87 min.
PRODUCTION: An Imagine Film Distribution (IFD) release of a Hélicotronc, L’Oeuil Tambour production.
CREW: Director/screenplay: Ann Sirot, Raphaël Balboni. Editing: Sophie Vercruysse, Raphaël Balboni. Cinematography: Jorge Piquer Rodriguez.
WITH: Jo Deseure, Jean Le Peltier, Lucie Debay, Gilles Remiche.