San Sebastian 2023 review: A Silence (Joachim Lafosse)

“The importance of the subject matter, combined with the intense artistry with which Lafosse approaches these ideas, is more than enough to capture and maintain our undivided attention.”

There are many hypothetical questions that we ask ourselves over time, and one of the most challenging is how far would we go to defend and protect a close family member who commits a crime. This question is the starting point of A Silence, the most recent outing by Joachim Lafosse. It follows the lives of an ordinary upper-class family as they navigate various difficulties when their patriarch, a respected but controversial lawyer, finds himself on the other side of the law after his decades-long history of abuse and sexual deviance is revealed. This not only causes a stir with the community at large, but also forces a rift to develop between him and the rest of his family. The story is told through the eyes of neither the perpetrator nor the victim, but rather the matriarch of this family, who observes the changes that occur once she realizes that years of silence have served very little purpose in maintaining the peace, allowing her to finally open up and reveal her own story. An intimate chamber drama about complex individuals navigating challenges presented to them, A Silence is quite an unnerving film, but one that carries an abundance of complexity, particularly in how it tackles some intimidating subject matter with incredible tact.

The past is a concept that can be both comforting and disturbing in equal measures, and far too many people believe that they can hide their past actions, not realizing that secrets have a tendency to catch up with us when we least expect it. A Silence builds on the idea of a well-regarded member of society, someone who has committed his life to fighting for moral causes and justice, being put at the mercy of the very community he represented and trying to convince them to not turn on him despite the abundance of evidence. There are challenges that one is forced to confront when the past is unearthed, which is precisely what Lafosse set out to explore with this film. Carrying secrets can be a burden, and when the truth is revealed it can have an enormous impact on one’s life and everything that represents. Lafosse reconfigures these ideas into an engaging and provocative psychological drama in which we are given access to the innermost thoughts of three members of a family which teeters dangerously close to collapsing as the truth becomes more evident, showing that beneath even the most idealistic institutions there lingers a bleakness that informs much of this film’s message, which is often quite callous but still profoundly impactful.

Emmanuelle Devos is truly one of the great actors of her generation, and Lafosse proves to be yet another filmmaker who has taken the opportunity to harness her immense talents, with their collaboration yielding results that come close to matching the work she did with Arnaud Desplechin in Kings and Queen and Claire Simon in I Want to Talk About Duras. All of these are films that showcase Devos’ remarkable skill and deeply profound sense of acting. She has the most difficult character to play in A Silence, portraying a woman who is caught in the middle of a precarious situation when her son and husband find themselves embroiled in a criminal investigation. Devos is incredible, but we also have to acknowledge the impeccable work being done by Daniel Auteuil, giving one of his strongest (and perhaps most sinister) performances in years, and newcomer Matthieu Galoux, who immediately establishes himself as someone to watch with his intense performance as a young man who initially seems to be caught in the crossfire between his parents, but turns out to know more than he initially claimed. The film is a dynamic and complex character study that explores the relationship between these three individuals as they face the challenges presented to them, and in the process we learn much more about these people and what they represent, something that is both unnerving and deeply captivating.

The final moments of A Silence are bound to be remembered for years, especially Devos’ piercing stare as she watches the two men she deeply loved have their entire livelihoods taken away simply through poor decisions – and these quiet moments are precisely the reason Lafosse succeeds so wholeheartedly in developing these ideas. There are slight parallels between this film and something like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, particularly in how dialogue intertwines with mood to create a methodical deconstruction of the ideal family and a scathing indictment of the people who are universally respected for their position in society, but actually conceal secrets that defy our notion of what decency entails. The film approaches these subjects in a manner that is gentle but forthright, and every emotion presented throughout the story feels genuine and complex, being placed at the appropriate moment. A Silence is a challenging film, and the lack of redeemable characters or a satisfying arc will certainly mean this is bound to be polarizing – but the importance of the subject matter, combined with the intense artistry with which Lafosse approaches these ideas, is more than enough to capture and maintain our undivided attention.