With Proxima Competition entry Keeping Mum (2023), French filmmaker Emilie Brisavoine confronts childhood trauma head-on, attempting to the cycle with unusual honesty and a willingness to embrace the cringe. Unafraid to shy away from “uncool” filmmaking techniques, her raw, open approach yields effective, affecting results.
The documentarian follows up her investigation of her half-sister in Oh La La Pauline! (2015) by turning her focus toward her absent mother. Brisavoine has just had a baby herself and is concerned, to quote Larkin, that “they fuck you up, your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do.” Emilie both loves her mother and resents her, especially as she was absent for most of her youth; when she was there, she mostly remembers endless shouting while raising the other kids by herself. To try and break the circle, she investigates her own mother’s difficult past in an attempt to make sure that her child isn’t fucked up too.
Breaking the circle is the eternal conversation. Even well-adjusted people usually blame their parents for something, believing that they will be even better parents in the future. Yet with every iteration, perhaps something can improve.
The problem Emilie finds early on is her mother’s unwillingness to look inwards, to see her own faults as anything other than a result of her own upbringing, including an abusive husband, a mother who wished she wasn’t born and a string of lecherous co-workers. The name of the film explains itself.
Brisavoine works on holding the camera throughout difficult moments, constantly asking awkward questions that nobody wants to answer. And one argument in particular, with the camera tossed to the side of the kitchen, is particularly stirring, probing the limits of what filmmaking can achieve with people unwilling to look inside themselves.
Perhaps making up for her mother’s reticence, the film is complemented by documentary footage of the universe, VHS montages, the reciting of letters, an odyssey through self-help YouTube videos, bizarre, fictionalised imaginations and even an interior monologue joke stolen from Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977), humorously contrasting small talk with inner feelings of rage. Despite the heavy subject matter, Keeping Mum is light on its feet; and despite Brisavoine’s navel-gazing, her lack of egotism keeps the story universal.
It joins a flurry of films from millennials using 90s VHS footage, both naturally and superficially, to evoke the era with a heart-stirring nostalgia. It’s something that digital footage cannot so easily replicate, making me wonder what cine-memoirs, whether it’s A Feature Film About Life (Dovile Sarutyte, 2021) or Aftersun (Charlotte Wells, 2023), will look like twenty-five years from now. Perhaps Tik Tok clips, like Vine ten years beforehand, will excellently capture this current era. I guess you can’t imagine the past until it’s past.