Berlinale 2023 review: Family Time (Tia Kouvo)

“Despite its overwhelmingly meticulous staging, this is a tender film with relatable ideas or emotions at its core.”

In 2021, Swiss filmmakers Ramon and Silvan Zürcher wowed the Berlinale audience with their inventive mise-en-scène in The Girl and the Spider (Das Mädchen und die Spinne), which turned the confined space of an ordinary apartment into a maze of constant motion and emotional turmoil. Premiering in the Encounters section of this year’s Berlinale, Tia Kouvo’s surprisingly dynamic domestic drama Family Time (Mummola) employs a similar approach to create a suffocating, but strangely wondrous occasion out of a seemingly ordinary Christmas gathering. This is not an eventful film and may require some patience from its viewers, but Kouvo’s layered compositions manage to establish a unique rhythm, keeping the audience engaged throughout. Further festival play seems assured; adventurous distributors might also be eager to add this promising debut to their rosters.

Based on the director’s 2018 short of the same name, Family Time is a diptych, with the second chapter arriving about an hour into the film. It all seems very quotidian, almost insignificant at first, but the intricacy of Kouvo’s design becomes increasingly clear as the film unfolds. Both chapters revolve around a family gathering (Christmas in the first case, a more somber occasion in the second one), and trace minor aggressions, frictions, or misunderstandings that follow a cyclical pattern. The first chapter is characterized by a sense of reunion, or even unwelcome proximity, while the second half invites a comparative perspective by depicting the characters in their separate environments. Through a series of deceptively inconsequential conversations about Christmas programs on TV, cooking ingredients, and promotions or other changes at the office, Kouvo observes how a family deals with the frustrations of daily life. The grandfather has a serious drinking problem, which upsets his children, but his wife is accustomed to his ways after 52 years of marriage. The old couple have two daughters, each dealing with their own professional and personal struggles (with a confrontation between one daughter and her husband, entirely set in a car, being particularly memorable). Their grandchildren frequently voice valid concerns in unexpectedly blunt ways, which forces the adults in the house to take a moment to reflect on their all-too-accurate assessments (the grandfather’s drinking ruins the Christmas dinner for everyone, for example, but only the grandchildren are able to say this aloud). On a snowy night, one member of the family goes out to drive around aimlessly and have junk food on his own. When the daughters half-heartedly mention visiting their mother more often, the grandmother invites them to come whenever they want with heartbreaking enthusiasm. Nothing groundbreaking happens in Family Time, but the film is full of such quietly affecting revelations about this troubled group of people.

What animates these nicely observed but familiar tableaux is Kouvo’s sophisticated mise-en-scène. Much of the film plays out in static medium-long shots, but each frame in Family Time is full of activity despite this lack of camera movement. Kouvo choreographs multiple streams of constant motion in various parts of a single frame and makes impressive use of the whole canvas at her disposal. Her directorial choices also bring off-screen spaces into the film’s somewhat claustrophobic world through pointed use of sound from sources just outside the frame. The first half of Family Time is deliberately cluttered, with each composition overflowing with Christmas decorations, multiple characters or too many pieces of old furniture. In other scenes, the tight framing leaves characters little room to move around, reflecting how they are trapped in this annual family ritual. Kouvo lets long sequences unfold in uninterrupted takes (a challenge that all members of the strong ensemble live up to), yet the lack of cutting does not create a sense of stillness or slowness because the audience is constantly presented with a lot of visual information to process.

One aspect that works against the film is its slightly overlong running time. For a film so dependent on rhythm and composition, this is a particularly tricky question. On one hand, Kouvo is interested in capturing an annual routine (a cyclical experience) in its condensed form. This makes some of the repetition deliberate and functional. But on the other hand, Family Time gets too repetitive in parts – an issue that dilutes the impact of its staging, which actually has a certain musicality to it. It is impossible not to appreciate the precision of Kouvo’s direction. However, watching Family Time occasionally feels like following a group of laboratory subjects in a masterfully orchestrated experiment. There is some degree of rigidity to the film’s design, which proves to be both admirable and frustrating.

Fortunately, when Family Time starts to feel a bit too clinical and controlled for its own good, the universality of its central themes (family ties, intergenerational conflicts, the psychological toll of modern life) keeps it grounded. Despite its overwhelmingly meticulous staging, this is a tender film with relatable ideas or emotions at its core. While the loving-yet-dysfunctional family in Kouvo’s film doesn’t have much to celebrate during Christmas, the emergence of a notable talent like her is definitely worth celebrating.

(c) Image copyright: Sami Kuokkanen / Aamu Filmcompany