Sarah Slade finds a chilly charm in the latest Jon Sanders collaboration.
Films that play with reality and perception tends toward the spooky end of the cinematic spectrum. Not so with A Change in the Weather. In fact, it’s hard to find a premise more cosily middle-class and…actorly…than the one offered here: a group of performers spends a week in a French gite and things get a bit sticky on the relationship front. It’s got Radio 4 written all over it.
Well, that’s what I thought when I read the publicity. The South of France seems to be the place to have a mid-life crisis these days. Sitting on the terrasse, glass of rough, local red on the table, nibbling a baguette while musing on a descent into comfortless old age as the swifts dance their twilight dance overhead and the vines shiver in the breeze. The film almost writes itself, doesn’t it?
Well, in a way this film does, and it doesn’t.
The story opens with a woman, alone, seated against a painted backdrop. Questions fly at her from offscreen interlocutors, asking about her thwarted ambitions and her long-standing relationship with a man called Bernard. She becomes increasingly defensive as the questions appear to hit a nerve, and walks off.
It turns out that this interrogation is a performance preparation technique. The woman was in character and the interrogators were her fellow actors. So let’s start again.
Dan (Bob Goody) is a theatre director who has decided to revisit a collaborative piece about a man’s relationship with his wife. The man will be played by a life-sized puppet; his wife will be played by three different women, all of whom represent different phases in his life. A young German actress, Kalle (Meret Becker) plays the woman he first met. Monica (Maxine Finch) plays his wife in middle age. Lydia (Anna Mottram) plays his wife in the present, late-middle age.
There are moments of wine-sipping and contemplation. There are walks around the scrubby hills of Aude. There are polite conversations loaded with hidden emotion and sudden verbal explosions that are almost immediately retracted. The music is all tinkly pianos and polite dissonance. So far, all very British.
Except that Lydia is also Dan’s wife in the “real” world (i.e. not in the play) and, as we discover, the play is a thinly-disguised dissection of their own marriage. This fills every line with such meaning that subsequent conversations almost collapse under their own gravity. This is an old relationship: patched and mended so often that only the patches seem to remain. Lydia maintains a permanent guard, even in private, so that not even the appearance of her dead best friend Bea (Tanya Myers), seems to faze her. They chat in quiet corners or on long walks.
The blurring of the supernatural with reality, along with wondering which version of the marriage we’re watching at any time, is a dislocating experience. Bea doesn’t seem particularly ghosty. spending her days wandering around the countryside and making talismans in the cellar. Add to that an absence of an obvious narrative – we seem to be watching selected scenes from the week: sometimes the women are dancing with the man-puppet, or staging a “hot seat” Q&A session, or creating music, or just sitting around, drinking and talking.
From the fragments, we can piece together that the puppeteer who looks like Dan is in fact his daughter, but not Lydia’s. Kalle is going through a bad break-up. Bea’s widower, James, roams the countryside, numb with grief, tailed by his dead wife. Most of the dialogue is improvised, which gives a more natural rhythm to the conversations, but the sentences often disappear, with what should be said remaining unsaid, with not even a speaking look to help us out.
With all the hints, allusions and subtext going on, it’s hard to get a handle on any of the characters. We can see that Dan is charming, a bit selfish and used to getting his own way with Lydia; that Lydia is so used to putting Dan first that she seems to float in a fog of passivity. Kalle is damaged, quick-witted and eager to please. Monica is straightforward, confident in her own skin and disliked by Lydia. The catalyst comes when Dan encourages the Kalle to impersonate Lydia’s character in a workshop, which seems to make Lydia realise that, for all the talk of a collaborative relationship, her voice is always Dan’s voice, her actions are Dan’s interpretation of her thoughts, not her own. Again, none of this is said. It’s all implications and hints, a sort of psychological Morse Code. As we’re decoding the story, Lydia inches towards the inevitable conclusion.
When the denouement comes, it does so precisely, brutally, with deadening politeness, ending with a simple, “I think you should go now”. So very British, yet utterly devastating.
A Change In the Weather is showing in UK cinemas from 7 July 2017. Details from http://achangeintheweatherfilm.com.