Locarno 2023 review: Family Portrait (Lucy Kerr)

“A complex, fascinating and deeply odd film with a unique perspective and an abundance of intricate details that may not always be useful in understanding the narrative at first.”

Behind every photograph there lurks a secret, and one can only imagine the depth that comes with an expansive family portrait, which may seem like a pleasant reunion on the surface, and a way of documenting different generations gathered together in a single location, but there is always more to be said than anyone is actually willing to admit. Whether interpersonal conflict or shared trauma, there is far too much left unsaid during these moments. This is the foundation on which Lucy Kerr constructs the appropriately titled Family Portrait, a film that centers on an ordinary family preparing to take a photograph at their latest reunion. As well as being a vibrant and captivating examination of familial structure as a whole, the film is an observational drama that looks into the lives of around a dozen individuals as they interact over the course of what seems to be a single afternoon – although time is not anything more than a temporary construction for the director, who goes in search of deeper themes beneath a relatively simple narrative. Drawing heavy inspiration from the current wave of American independent film, which in turn is built on the foundation set by the proponents of cinéma verité, Kerr establishes a strong conceptual base that helps guide the viewer through this increasingly strange version of the world she intends to depict, and makes Family Portrait one of the more effectively peculiar films of the year.

Perhaps referring to Family Portrait as being plotless isn’t quite accurate, since there is a story that flows throughout the film, but it is overtaken by the mood. This is a film that is primarily propelled by its atmosphere, which complements the more fluid nature of the story. We don’t know much about this family – our first encounter with them is entirely silent, their voices muted by some mysterious drone, with only the faintest whisper of voices being heard in the distance. Over the next 70 minutes we are taken on a journey into a day in the lives of these characters, the perspective shifting consistently between them as they discuss a range of issues, but few with any relevance to the story besides representing the banal small talk that usually populates such reunions. Eventually we start to see the urbane encroaching on the natural, as the family makes their way into the lush surroundings of this pastoral home (a place they momentarily colonize and use as the stage for their familial tensions to flourish) where they are gathered to take the titular photograph. The film weaves through this world with incredible intensity, using various thematic cues to build on its own eccentric identity, which is not easily decoded at first. Rather, it becomes more prominent the more time we spend with these characters, whom we only begin to understand through quietly observing their interactions, in which we learn about their individual pasts as well as being given insights into this family, each conversation revealing a new fragment that helps us piece together a relatively thorough understanding of these individuals.

Family Portrait is quite a provocative film in terms of both form and content, and it is the construction of the project that draws most of our attention. The story transpires slowly and organically, and is structured around individual conversations within this family as they interact over the course of what was supposed to be a pleasant reunion, but which almost immediately unsettles memories and insecurities that many of them would rather keep concealed. It is ultimately the source of the harrowing final act where logic collapses and the tone dramatically shifts. This is a film that uses the careful curation of images and sounds to convey a particular message, constructing a series of existential tableaux that center around this family trying to spend an afternoon together, but finding the most challenging hurdle to cross is their own psychological state. As we see throughout the film, which takes the form of an intimate but well-made drama, the distant whispers of the past slowly inch closer towards the view, until the sounds are almost unpleasant, the family voices becoming a cacophony that reaches a fever pitch towards the end. At that point we realize the true scope of these relationships and how each character is a distinct individual whose complexity is captured in both the conversations and the moments of silence. The entire ensemble deserves credit, since Family Portrait only becomes this intriguing with a cast that is thoroughly committed to participating as fragments of this hauntingly beautiful familial tapestry.

Both structurally and narratively, Family Portrait is an immense achievement, a film that appears relatively simple at a cursory glance, but proves far more complex once we are fully immersed within the story. The message being conveyed is not entirely obvious. It is part of the experience to discover these hidden nuances, using our discretion to unpack and decode the various existential mysteries embedded in this film, each interpretation quite different but still somehow working in tandem on the journey to understand precisely what Kerr was intending to represent throughout this film. Ultimately, the film depicts the fact that when banality is allowed to fester, reality begins to blur and logic rapidly disappears, forcing us to become lost in a labyrinth of existential dread, wandering hopelessly until we find some meaning in those predictable conversations that we all experience. This is tied together with a poignant examination of the weight of the past – we watch as these characters not only deal with their own individual identity (such as those who feel like outsiders, despite being invited into this family), as well as the challenges that come in handling the burden of one’s personal history. It is a complex, fascinating and deeply odd film with a unique perspective and an abundance of intricate details that may not always be useful in understanding the narrative at first. But they become increasingly vital to comprehend the scope of this film as well as its real-world implications, which provide haunting but powerful existential commentary.