IFFR 2022 review: La ruche (Christophe Hermans)

La ruche is a focused and assured debut that is (thankfully) relatively devoid of histrionics, a finely acted portrait of what it means to live with someone with bipolar disorder.”

Films about dysfunctional families are a dime a dozen. So are films about mental disorders. Why is it that filmmakers go back to this well so often? Obviously there is a lot of drama to be mined in these stories, but as often as not a lack of integrity makes the whole effort cringe-worthy at best and downright insulting at worst. Luckily Belgian documentarist Christophe Hermans in his feature film debut La ruche (The Hive) manages to give this story about a bipolar woman and her three daughters the respect the disorder deserves. Perhaps it’s his background in documentary filmmaking, but at least part of the reason why La ruche doesn’t devolve into schmaltz is because Hermans’ focus is largely on the effect their mother’s bipolarism has on her three girls, in particular the oldest one. As a result, La ruche is a focused and assured debut that is (thankfully) relatively devoid of histrionics, a finely acted portrait of what it means to live with someone with bipolar disorder.

Marion (Sophie Breyer) is the oldest of three daughters of Alice (Ludivine Sagnier). Her mother’s mental health issues require Marion to practically run this single-mother household, keeping a watchful eye over her two younger siblings Claire (Mara Taquin) and Louise (Bonnie Duvauchelle, Sagnier’s real-life daughter). Their absent father (Tom Vermeir) is mainly seen as a source of income through his monthly alimony payments. Marion is planning a long-term stay in Brazil (possibly to master the art of her hobby capoeira? The film isn’t really clear about this), combining her school hours with a waitressing job to save up for the trip. These plans are threatened when Alice goes through a bipolar episode, forcing Marion to make tough choices as she and her sister are left to their own devices.

The focus on the daughters, in particular Marion, gives Hermans the opportunity to avoid common tropes of the genre for the most part. It seems one can never do a film of this kind without handheld camera work and lots of close-ups, but luckily this never becomes overbearing. And Hermans has assembled a cast that makes the most of these close-ups. All four women give deeply felt performances, the experienced Sagnier perhaps the weakest link (she’s still excellent), which comes down to her part being a little underwritten. Breyer as the substitute mater familias and Taquin as the rebellious, tomboyish middle daughter deliver exemplary work, Breyer in particular showcasing how she can lead a film like La ruche with assurance. And Duvauchelle shows that the proverbial apple indeed does not fall far from the acting tree. Having such a great cast ensures that Hermans has to carry a smaller load on his debut, but he leads the film with a confident hand, relying on a self-penned script (together with Noëmie Nicolas) based on the novel by Arthur Loustalot. Save for a few scenes, such as a party thrown by Claire at the apartment, which goes awry with Alice as the catatonic center, the story flows to what looks to be a somewhat unresolved ending, until the final beat. La ruche is a solid entry in the mental illness genre, lifted above the crowd mainly by a fabulous cast and by shifting the focal point to the suffering bystanders.