Berlinale 2022 review: This House (Miryam Charles)

This House is a film that demands contemplation but doesn’t give enough to contemplate on.”

Shot on grainy 16mm and swerving through three different timelines, real and imagined, Miryam Charles’ This House is a haunting reminder of the plight of immigrants in North America. Seemingly stuck in a perpetual dream state, the film takes us on an enigmatic journey through space, from Haiti to Connecticut to Quebec, as well as time, from past to present to future, liberally skipping back and forth to create a surreal account of the life and death of a teenager. The eerie cinematography and mostly staged settings add to an artificiality that is intended but not always convincing, making This House an admirable but difficult to grasp second effort by director, writer, and cinematographer Charles.

Tessa (Schelby Jean-Baptiste) was born in 1994 in Stamford, Connecticut. She died 14 years later after an apparent suicide. The autopsy reveals it was a brutal murder though. Her grieving mother, Valeska (Florence Blain Mbaye), an immigrant who left her birthplace Haiti to build a better future elsewhere, mourns her daughter in the presence of a group of relatives. But like a Ghost from Christmas Future, an adult Tessa is also in the room, in oneiric dialogue with her mother. She also looms over a (rather bizarre) visit that her mother gets from the welfare office, who come to see how she is coping with the loss of her daughter. But at other times we see her as the teenager whose life was cut short, in scenes that may or may not have happened. Is this a part of her spirit’s recollection of the past, or is it her mother’s memory of her? This is not at all clear, and the film’s meandering nature that shoots through time and space to touch upon many themes doesn’t give the viewer much footing to stand on.

The film is certainly not just about Tessa; perhaps it is fair to say it is more about her mother. Long, unfocused sequences are spent looking at the beauty of Haiti in grainy, scratchy film stock, as we wander through Valeska’s memories of her years on the island. There is a recurring theme of finding one’s place and how difficult this is for immigrants, because they never feel completely at home in their new country. There are hints of a racist motive to Tessa’s murder. But the timeline is too jumbled and the dialogue too opaque to come to a conclusive end of Charles’ thesis in this regard.

As a result, This House is a film that demands contemplation but doesn’t give enough to contemplate on. There are certainly interesting and quite original ideas about grief and mourning, but it never fully coalesces into a coherent message, hindered by a scattershot timeline and dialogue that is a tad too dense for its own good. Charles’ cinematography, in all its saturated glory, is what remains most on the mind, and the acting by the two main actresses lingers, though somewhat stilted by necessity, making This House a bit of a mixed success that will keep many a viewer at arm’s length because of its difficult structure and lack of true focus.