Cannes 2024 review: Armand (Halfdan Ullmann Tøndel)

“As Tøndel’s cleverly constructed Kammerspiel slowly reveals its mysteries and family secrets, perceptions shift back and forth between the two women fighting for the well-being of their young sons.”

Don’t judge a book by its cover, and don’t judge a woman by her earrings. In a film that is tightly wound around pre-conceived notions and too quickly drawn conclusions, Norwegian director Halfdan Ullmann Tøndel not only plays with the way his characters have their opinions ready even if they don’t have all the facts straight, but also holds a mirror up to the audience. As in the film’s opening scene, when we see a woman arrive at an elementary school and remove her excessive lipstick and big hoop earrings; based on those actions the viewer forms in their mind an image of who this woman is. But as Tøndel’s cleverly constructed Kammerspiel slowly reveals its mysteries and family secrets, perceptions shift back and forth between the two women fighting for the well-being of their young sons.

The woman arriving at the school is Elisabeth (an in-form Renate Reinsve), a single mom, although we only later learn why there is no partner in the picture. She has been called to school, on one of the last days before the summer break no less, because her 6-year-old, Armand, was involved in an incident with his playmate, Jon. When the other boy’s parents Sarah and Anders (Ellen Dorrit Petersen and Endre Hellestveit, respectively) arrive, it is up to young and inexperienced teacher Sunna (Thea Lambrechts Vaulen) to get all parties involved to come to a satisfactory agreement. She fails. The incident is supposedly of a sexual nature, but it isn’t really clear what exactly happened between the boys. Bringing in the school’s principal (Øystein Røger) and a senior teacher (Vera Veljovic) only makes things worse, as their pussyfooting around the incident pits Elisabeth and Sarah against each other. Sarah suspects Elisabeth, a former actress, of fooling everybody with fits of uncontrollable laughter or bursts of tears in order to manipulate the authorities in front of them. Elisabeth on her part holds a grudge against Sarah over the suicide of her husband Thomas, Sarah’s brother and a former pupil of the school’s principal.

As more information gradually trickles through, both the audience’s and the characters’ perceptions of Elisabeth and Sarah change. Elisabeth’s former career is always in the back of the mind, as is the removal of those earrings. Is she indeed putting on an act to sway the opinions of all involved, including the audience? This question remains open until the end of the film, by which point Tøndel has ratcheted up the tension so far that the thin cord the film balances on is close to breaking. And it does break, in a long, imagined dance sequence of sorts that strongly reminds one of Midsommar‘s final orgasmic group scene, only more violent and invasive for the character at the center of it all.

It is not the first flight of fancy, or even dance sequence, that Armand goes through, but it is in this climactic scene that the film flies off the rails. Going into Elisabeth’s head and imagination in itself is not the film’s issue, but the problem is that these expressionist sequences don’t gel well with the methodical dissection of the fault lines between all players in a claustrophobic chamber piece.

Tøndel effectively creates this feeling of claustrophobia with the help of cinematographer Pål Ulvik Rokseth and sound designer Mats Lid Støten, who fill every nook and cranny of the film’s single location (the school) with shadow-plays and disconcerting noises. Sarah’s heels clacking on the hall floors as she and Anders arrive, their approach heard by Elisabeth and Sunna, is almost straight out of a horror playbook, and it is especially the length of moments like this that tightens the knot in one’s stomach. Tøndel proves a master at creating discomfort for both his characters and his audience. The dryness of the procedural scenes, even if lit in cold blues or shot in near black and white, clashes with the more abstract sequences though, which makes Armand a hard film to pin down and leaves a slightly unsatisfactory aftertaste for what has been a strong and confident debut.

(c) Image copyright: Eye Eye Pictures