Starring: Juliet Stevenson, Alex Lawther, Phénix Brossard, Finbar Lynch
Director: Andrew Steggall
For middle-class Britain, is there anything more romanticised that owning a rustic holiday cottage in the French countryside? In Andrew Steggall's latest movie Departure, the remains of this idealised dream are picked to pieces by a nuclear family who are coming apart at the seams, whose attainment of this romanticism has not been enough to keep them together.
Beatrice (Stevenson) and her son Elliott (Lawther) have returned to their cottage for the last time. With Beatrice's marriage falling to pieces, they have decided to sell their home and as they begin to sort out its contents, she struggles to deal with having to pack up what she loves so dearly. Meanwhile, Elliott meets the self-assured and hyper-masculine Clément (Brossard), with whom he is instantly infatuated. He doggedly pursues a friendship with him, hoping it will develop into more, but for Clément, this is nothing more than a distraction from caring for his dying aunt. When Elliott's father (Lynch) finally arrives, this peaceful country escape deteriorates into anything but.
The French countryside has never looked more beautiful, with rural rough-hewn cottages hiding in woodland; shutters at the windows, gardens filled with herbs, ponds and streams nestled amongst clusters of autumnal trees. Clearly living in France in autumn is something Beatrice has dreamt of since childhood and she says that she bought the house because fell in love with this spot at this time of year, but Elliott bitterly retorts that they have since only ever visited in summer. Clearly this place has held many of the family's happiest sun-drenched memories, but it is only now that they are returning in autumn, as the leaves are dying on the trees and their family is too.
Stevenson's Beatrice is a broken woman. Despite the oft-explored cinematic metaphor of clearing out a house during a divorce, this self-punishing ritual deftly depicts the misery she is having to endure alone. Elsewhere, her son is struggling with his own problems, as his obsession with Clément reveals to him that his self-inflicted identity of the struggling poet is him torturing himself, just like his mother. Clément describes him as a "walking cliché" as he tries to define himself as an aesthete rather than just a homosexual. For him, his intellectualism transcends his sexual identity, but unfortunately he cannot escape from the latter. In the opening scenes, Beatrice runs over a deer and Elliott becomes obsessed with tracking down its body on the roadside. Clément behaves like a brutish stag and Elliott's obsession has undermined his rationality and logic, leaving him like a wounded doe limping beast-like behind him.
Beatrice and Elliott are painfully British in their refusal to discuss their feelings. They are middle-class, over-educated and over-self aware. Clément is the exact opposite however, acting like a breath of fresh air in what had become a stagnant family unit. Brossard is an electrifying presence and Clément's own struggles are the perfect counterpoint to the English family's. Lawther (seen previously as the young Alan Turing in The Imitation Game) is suitably mawkish as Elliott, Lynch is seethingly detestable as his father, but really the film belongs to Stevenson, who gives a heartbreaking turn as a woman on the verge of losing everything that she loves.
Leaden with heavy emotion, Departure is thankfully able to steer clear of sentimentality or becoming bogged down in its own drama. Though the film is slow-paced, enough tension still exists to make the film a charged and compelling piece of cinema. Beautifully shot in a stunning location, the characters' behaviour somehow make the place ugly, serving as a stark reminder that a place is only as beautiful as the people perceiving it.