Bitter, malicious and riddled with contempt. That is the portrait we are painted of Lara Jenkins (Corinne Harfouch): not in the first scene, but later in the film. The opening shot places us by the window of her flat. As Lara presses down on the handle, she steps up onto the chair before the ledge and we are led to believe we may lose our protagonist before even seeing her face. Yet the age-old saviour of the doorbell comes to the rescue, and so the tale begins.
As she reaches her 60th birthday, ex-civil servant Lara finds herself being summoned on a case and, while perturbed, she goes along to help; clasping on to a shred of her past self-importance. Most of the other characters are exceptionally wary around her, something unsurprising because of her curt attitude. Lara has dedicated most of her life to raising and sculpting her son, the musical prodigy Viktor (Tom Schilling). She embellishes her level of pride about her son to friends and the public, but there is an underlying pain submerged behind her eyes as she struggles to really ever come to terms with her own unfulfilled potential. She spends her birthday treating herself to fancy clothes, exquisite food and prying into the lives of old friends, family, and colleagues as she scrabbles to make amends for a past full of coldness and disdain.
There is something so gruellingly cruel about the fact she must spend her birthday alone in pursuit of happiness, and is dashed at each turn by the selfish decisions of her past. The film has a brilliant ability to play devil’s advocate with the audience’s sympathy and contempt for Lara. She finds herself cast out by everyone in her life by her own hand, yet to watch anyone suffer after all the mistakes they have made in their life is still quite terribly sad. Her self-induced isolationism is incredibly impactful, and fully expands on the fact absolution from your past cannot be resolved in a day; hours of half-hearted repentance do not account for the years spent bending others under your thumb.
How much pain do you take from your own childhood and pass on to your own children, out of bitterness and spite, despite this not being intended? Her own mother (Gudrun Ritter) has in many ways almost eradicated from Lara from her life, and taken Viktor under her wing. She takes pleasure in reprimanding Lara for forever being too harsh on Viktor. Family affairs are a painful and unavoidable part of most people’s lives, and hers is as toxic as most, with even her ex-husband ridiculing her for her choices in life (Rainer Bock). It makes her interactions with the outside world feel so clumsy as she tries to make amends by buying all the concert tickets to ensure her son’s concerto is sold out and gives them to acquaintances and friends. It’s like watching someone desperately trying to sellotape the faded, peeling wallpaper of her existence as any remaining structures in her life start to crumble away.
LARA is a stand-out piece from this year’s London Film Festival, as we follow one miserable woman’s attempt to salvage any sentiment and kindness left in her life through a series of melodramatic and chaotic acts in the space of one day. The film overall is intensely profound and infuriating. Her obsession with gaining this pitying martyr status just becomes exhausting; yet one becomes gripped regardless, as you wonder where this mission will lead her, and if her sense of personal salvation is even attainable after all.