EL-GOUNA, Egypt: Much as we’re assaulted by it in TV news, it’s hard to watch old people suffer. At its worst, documentary film that dwells on late-life misery, and the pathos it provokes, can seem cruel for its opportunism.
Cyril Aris’ “The Swing” documents a complicated story of grief experienced by an elderly couple.
The 74-minute documentary is suffused with sadness, yet it ponders some important ethical questions about truth and mortality.
Aris’ feature-length film debut premiered last week at El-Gouna Film Festival, where it emerged from the documentary competition with the third-place prize.
“The Swing” opens with a nicely framed, grainy tableau of a room as seen from an interior hallway. Sitting at one edge of a couch a lady, Viviane, sniffles into a telephone as she tries to dial a number. No one answers.
In the next sequence, the camera gazes into a room that opens onto a balcony. The looming skeleton of a tower under construction so dominates the skyline, it may take a second or two to notice the slouched form of Antoine, an older gentleman sitting, back to the camera.
Divided into two chapters “Winter” and “Summer” the film follows the lives of Antoine and Viviane over six months or so of sustained trauma.
The absent center of this story is Marie-Therese. Depicted as the most attentive of Antoine and Viviane’s children, the 50-something Marie-Therese was in Argentina when she abruptly died of heart failure.
Upon receiving news of Marie-Therese’s shocking death, her siblings had to decide what to tell their ailing parents the filmmaker’s grandparents. Their solution compelled Aris to shoot this film.
Viviane is physically robust, so her children told her the full story of her daughter’s death, and put her on a course of tranquilizers. Antoine, on the other hand, is so frail that his kids feared the news would kill him.
So when he asks where Marie-Therese is (as he does repeatedly over the course of the film) they tell him she’s still in Argentina.
On one level the dishonesty is understandable. Why risk the death of the father so soon after the passing of the daughter? There is also something cruel about the decision.
After almost 65 years of marriage, it’s impossible for Viviane to share her grief with her husband. Antoine is left to puzzle over his once-doting daughter’s extended absence and the gnawing ache of loneliness. The family’s efforts to extend Antoine’s life effectively push him and Viviane into an emotional isolation they cannot share.
The film alights upon the couple during family celebrations (Antoine’s 90th birthday, for instance) as well as banal interludes, as when their domestic servant, Tiji, struggles to get him to eat.
For context, Aris sometimes draws upon home movie footage from the early 1990s and stills from photo albums to show the couple in happier, more youthful days.
“The Swing” documents the cruel ironies of Antoine and Viviane’s late-life predicament. More than that, the film traces the mismatched decline of shared aging an asymmetry that some call complementarity.
Viviane may be physically strong, for instance, but her daughter’s loss has ruined her emotionally. When not sobbing, she tries to coax Antoine to distract her with a story from the old days. Increasingly deaf, Antoine often has trouble hearing what she’s saying. More than once she veers close to telling him the truth of their daughter’s absence.
While physically fragile, Antoine is still sharp-witted. He listens comprehending if mystified as his kids tell him about the latest news from Arsal, the Lebanese border town briefly overrun by Islamist militants.
When in high spirits, he likes embarrassing his wife with professions of love singing torch songs to her in Italian, a language she doesn’t understand and recalling for the camera how she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever met.
Each time Antoine is told Marie-Therese is still abroad, he nods, unsmiling, as if making quiet calculations. At such moments, it’s easy to wonder whether as Viviane suspects he’s on to the ruse.
After reviewing some footage from a family gathering shot in 1991, Viviane can be heard lamenting that she no longer feels alive.
“There’s nothing to be done about it,” Antoine replies in one of several observations on the nature of mortality. “We are, all of us, spectators and actors.”