Mia Hansen-Løve’s directorial debut feature hits local theaters for the first time at UW Cinematheque on November 18.
Life never happens in a neat narrative line. One can certainly try to map the key moments of one’s existence according to the standard plot diagram introduced in any given literature, film, or writing course. But even the act of vaguely mapping a birth as “exposition” or a major fight as “rising action” doesn’t capture the humanly mundane experiences of walking from one destination to the next or quietly spending an afternoon in an ordinary living room.
French screenwriter and director Mia Hansen-Løve’s All Is Forgiven (2007)–which screens locally for the first time at UW Cinematheque on Friday, November 18, at 7 p.m.–attempts to do both at once: to emphasize the triumphs and devastations of a familial unit along a necessary plot line, and to capture their banal silences and transitory pauses. In its first portion, the film follows Victor (Paul Blain) and Annette (Marie-Christine Friedrich) as they navigate Victor’s drug addiction and parenthood. The second half sees Victor reunite with his daughter, Pamela (Constance Rousseau), 11 years after Annette makes the decision to leave him and cut off all communication.
As Hansen-Løve’s directorial debut, All Is Forgiven is the logical birthplace of the cinematic tone that becomes distinct in her later films, like Bergman Island (2021). She immerses viewers in moments of intense realism with Victor, Annette, and Pamela in the majority of the 105-minute running time. Take, for example, the portrayal of Victor’s addiction: one may expect the archetypal, gritty, and raucous scene of a person shooting heroin into their veins or snorting cocaine amidst dancing bodies and loud music. In All Is Forgiven, the picture of addiction instead becomes a man wandering from park to park to find a dealer, slipping away from outings with his daughter to run “errands” and waking up to the anticlimactic overdose of a lover. The expository tension between a dependence on drugs and the decay of a family still makes room for the subtle details of life: the sound of shoes on pavement or gravel, the ripples of water on the surface of a pond, the rustling of leaves and flowers.
While that pervading sense of reality successfully creates an intelligent, picturesque aura, it simultaneously becomes a detriment to the viewer’s ability to connect with All Is Forgiven‘s characters as fixtures in a story. Moments that are supposed to be seen as monumental and emotional, according to the typicality of narrative structure, fall flat in service to realism—a hallmark of the early French New Wave movement from which Hansen-Løve takes her inspiration. When Victor and Pamela decide to work toward reigniting their father-daughter relationship after a decade without contact, Hansen-Løve avoids expected sentimentality and instead commits to favor overly-stoic acting and a particularly odd choice to insert one of Pamela’s school friends into their attempt at a reunion.
Perhaps paradoxically, Friedrich provides the most authentic performance as Annette in a film that is arguably most centered on Victor in the first half and Pamela in the latter. She delicately toes that line between realistic interpretation of human triviality and an overt, purposeful dramatization necessary for effective storytelling. Annette’s at her most convincing when she’s not in the heat of a fight with Victor, but rather in the calmness of the aftermath. Here she is simultaneously healing inner wounds and physically present at the everyday setting of a dinner table. Moments before, viewers see Victor hitting her in a screaming match, the only amplified scene of violence throughout the entire film. At the table, Pamela tells Victor that she doesn’t want him to come to a Christmas gathering with her family. She needs peace, a few days of “calm,” she says, straightforwardly. But in looking closer, her searching eyes show a subtle desperation and an anxiety about how Victor might react.
If the film had an extended running time or a few more lines of unblunted dialogue, Blain and Rousseau may have been able to overcome the challenges of their roles and flourish like Friedrich does. However, All Is Forgiven succumbs to uneven pacing and consistently refuses to even slightly dramatize reality for the sake of the theatrical experience; it all does little to help viewers truly sympathize with the characters. As an illustration, in the scene where 18-year-old Pamela dances at a club with her friends and strangers for a darkened, minute-long sequence, the film would benefit from shaving off even five seconds to dedicate to a gesture or flash of emotion that indicates the continued movement of the plot. However, this resonance is stunted or absent, as it’s seen as going overboard with the depiction of the ordinary.
Regardless of one’s preference for the levels of tilt toward realism or romanticism, All Is Forgiven is nonetheless an admirable debut that showcases the cinematic notions of a then-budding, now-established director. Albeit shakily, the film endeavors to solve the dilemma of every filmmaker, writer, and artist who has ever lived: how to faithfully and creatively marry the inexplicable complexity of human nature with its commonplace, day-to-day physicality.