The first feature documentary from director Cyril Aris, THE SWING is an intensely intimate piece with a startling central conceit of familial deception. Shot on a low-budget camcorder format, the film balances an unusual aesthetic with a poignant meditation on grief and old age.
The film follows the filmmaker’s ailing grandparents: nonagenarian Antoine, and his wife Viviane. We learn that their daughter, Marie-Therese, has recently died, thrusting Viviane into a period of mourning. But, for fear of exacerbating Antoine’s poor heart condition, Viviane chooses to conceal her daughter’s fate from him, setting the film on an uneasy course of deception as the couple enter a period of reflection on their lives.
Aris uses a high frame-rate camcorder format, as he sets out to document the fragility of his grandparents, and the lie which hovers over their co-existence. It’s as if he uncovered his own early childhood endeavours with the old device and chose to revisit the subjects which first fascinated him decades ago: his own family. Initially, this implies Aris has discarded standard aesthetic concerns. Yet the opening scenes, in which Vivian and Antoine are cast in portraits of Vermeer-like window light, dispel such a claim. The film consistently presents its human subjects in a series of tableaus and portraits – often centred, sometimes cornered by negative space.
“…these elements reveal Aris’ understanding of the footage’s power to immortalise its subjects with poignant precision.”
The look certainly smacks of Chantal Akerman’s NO HOME MOVIE – another documentary dealing with the memories of a dying elder – but THE SWING possesses no diminishment in its harrowing effect. Following Akerman’s lead, enough coverage is afforded to vacant rooms, and the flat’s various nooks and crannies. Rooms emptied of the people they hosted, and the words they imported, while the framing often holds us at a distance from Antoine or Viviane by several thresholds of the house. Though essentially meditating on the transience of all things, these elements reveal Aris’ understanding of the footage’s power to immortalise its subjects with poignant precision.
It is also interesting that Aris resists conveying a clear portrait of Marie-Therese, instead opting to construct a strict observation of her parents’ behaviour in this timeframe. We practically never leave their apartment, and the 4:3 ratio keeps us cramped up in there with them. On the whole, Marie-Therese manifests through their recollections and impressions, essentially sustaining the strength of the film’s conceit, with the exception of a late sequence of archival footage which temporarily releases us from the suture of the film’s linearity.
Perhaps most importantly, Aris flirts with the current anxieties of documentarians – of revealed ‘truth’, as primarily encapsulated through our two protagonists. While Antoine ails in bed, Vivian strives to remain composed in full recognition of our watching; makeup on, in character for the camera, but barely holding back her tears when memories or the mention of Marie-Therese arise. The illusive fluidity of the film’s format disconcertingly generates a natural play of events that often feels intruded upon by our perverse examination, effectively making the film’s intimacy ever more startling.
“Perhaps most importantly, Aris flirts with the current anxieties of documentarians – of revealed ‘truth’…”
But, with such self-imposed limitations plot and technique, some missteps occur. Metaphoric images – specifically of the skyscrapers being built outside the couple’s flat – come off as uninspired, if only because we have seen their type many times before. Had we not seen the couple discussing the melancholia of time’s passing, these images might find further elevation, but they simply don’t compare to more thoughtful examples, such as Vivian sat by a glowing pool, surrounded by a group of partying 20-year-olds.
Equally, the film occasionally includes news from the outside world which find no resonance in the general course of the film. We hear a radio panel discussing the voting patterns of the young generation of students in Lebanon during an election, but this deliberate inclusion seems excessive and at certain odds with the confessional tone of the story.
These elements aside, THE SWING marks Aris as a filmmaker to anticipate in the future.