Berlinale 2024 review: Une famille (Christine Angot)

Une famille is a profoundly shocking, unsettling work that is as terrifying as it is uncomfortable.”

It has been estimated that the majority of acts of sexual assault against children aren’t committed by strangers, but rather by people they know or who exist in their domestic life. This is a fact that Christine Angot knows all too well, as she has been open about the abuse she suffered as a teenager at the hands of her father. This was first outlined in Incest, the work of autofiction that stirred up quite a bit of controversy in 1999, winning prizes for its honest, frank depiction of a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of a challenging childhood; but it was also a harsh account of what she experienced as a child, conveyed as a semi-fictional work, almost as if Angot wanted to give herself the agency to tell the story in her way rather than being bound by facts that can be stifling and traumatic. Likewise, facts are not central to another work in which she explores her past, coming twenty-five years since the publication of her novel. Une famille is a profoundly shocking, unsettling work that is as terrifying as it is uncomfortable.

A documentary in which the esteemed author travels back to her home town intending to address the past through discussions with key players in her childhood, the film is a complex and unsettling examination of abuse as seen through the perspective of a survivor who has now decided to undergo the process of confronting the roots of her abuse. This leads to a film that is deeply unnerving but profoundly honest in ways that none of us could fathom at the outset. The process of revisiting the past is certainly not easy, and it becomes monumentally more challenging when you are a victim of abuse, since we tend to psychologically mask the scars left by the past in the fear that the same feelings of trauma will emerge. Angot is extremely brave for not only being willing to take this journey into the past but also to do so on her own terms. Une famille is the first film that Angot has directed, which seems to be the only way for this film to effectively explore the subject matter, since it places the author in complete control of the narrative, and allows her to guide the story based on her memories.

It becomes clear from the first moments what Angot was hoping to achieve with Une famille – she wasn’t seeking an apology from the father who raped her and was responsible for her first encounters with sexual activity, long before it was appropriate – he is dead and cannot offer anything other than the lingering trauma he left in the daughter he refused to recognize for over a decade after her birth. She wasn’t seeking answers, since it is quite clear that he was a sexual deviant who manipulated and coerced those around him for his own gain – and it is revealing that Angot doesn’t even give him the basic quality of being named or called her father, only being referred to as “him” throughout the film. Instead, Angot is seeking closure – she speaks with her mother, hoping to get some clarity on whether she knew or suspected that the man with whom she spent a significant portion of her life was a deviant, or if it was concealed under layers of middle-class malaise. She interrogates people who have some relation to the events, even if only marginally. Angot knows that she will never get her stolen childhood back, and she will carry the burden of having her formative years corrupted by a man who was supposed to be a protector and guardian rather than someone who essentially was responsible for the destruction of her childhood innocence and changing the entire trajectory of her life.

The approach is simple but highly effective – with nothing but a table or a few metres separating Angot from the people with whom she speaks, there is nowhere for either of them to hide their emotions or comments, which leads to a harsh, unfiltered series of discussions that are intended to address certain unresolved matters. Angot did not need to make this film, and it feels almost inappropriate that we are witness to these conversations, since they are so intimate and personal; it is staggering that she was willing to commit them to film and share them with such a wide audience, many of whom could not even come close to comprehending the trauma and despair she has been carrying for over half a century. Yet, she allows us into these discussions, and they can be quite brutal: a confrontation with her stepmother early in the film is extremely difficult to watch, especially when her stepmother doesn’t realize the cameras are recording her and we see her about to physically attack the director. If anything, Une famille exists as an opportunity for Angot to work through her emotions and to address the past, which is a daunting act, but one that is ultimately essential to the processing of her trauma. The scars of the past will never heal, and this film certainly doesn’t mislead the audience into thinking everything was resolved by the end. What it ultimately does, however, is offer a glimpse into someone as they confront the past, solely to find some closure and the solace that comes with knowing that their journey will continue, even with this weight being carried on their shoulders.

Image copyright: Le Bureau Films, Rectangle Productions, France 2 Cinéma