Director: Joan Bentosela
Writers: Joan Bentosela
Cast: Aurélie Pitrat, Sylvain Geray, Hanna Fiedrich
Running time: 13 mins
The theme of false memories and imaginary (or are they) families is a staple of the thriller genre – and I might add, one of my least favourite tropes. When dealt with in mainstream Hollywood, it is usually handled so ham-fistedly, that the director might as well be bludgeoning you over the head with a wooden speech-bubble containing the words “BUT THEY REALLY DO EXIST AND THIS IS ALL A CONSPIRACY” splattered across it in luminous paint.
Fortunately, French filmmaker Joan Bentosela has a deft touch which means that, while the theme of his latest short, Disparue, might not be original, the delivery is subtle enough to make audiences feel they have still seen something new. Indeed, it is this subtlety which means that a sub-genre which usually misappropriates mental health issues to melodramatic effect can allude to the subject in a genuinely affecting manner.
Cinematographer François-Xavier Antonini must also take credit for this. His understated handheld shots work seamlessly with a minimalistic score to deliver an eerie realism underpinning the short’s opening act, to chilling effect. The initial scenario seems familiar enough; a bickering family at the start of a day out pulling into a car-wash before what will likely be an arduous journey fraught with the passive aggressivism only marriage and kids can draw out of human beings.
But while we take this in, the prevalent silence underwriting the scene prompts us to pay closer attention to its players, even the gas-station attendant, and as a result pick up on an unspoken discord. Something is wrong, but what is worse, we do not know what precisely is. This is a beautifully subtle concept which even the best horror auteurs can struggle to carry off at times; the idea that something unknown and dangerous has leaked into our safe every-day existence without our noticing – and while this is very much not a horror, Disparue carries off this particular device aimed at unnerving its audience with aplomb.
One of the limitations of this particular storyline is that the penny is likely to have dropped with the audience long before it does with our leading character. However, when Murielle (the splendid Aurélie Pitrat) finally realises what is going on, her driven panic – her desperation to find the family that may never have existed, and her inconsolable sobbing – hit the audience hard due to its disturbing authenticity, reminding us of the despair of bereaved mothers we have encountered in reality. And this excellent performance is able to do that to us precisely because it is given the space to breathe, rather than relying on overbearing orchestral scores, or mawkish slow-motion silent screams to show the agony of losing the ones you love.
Without spoiling the remainder of the film, Murielle does indeed receive treatment for a mental health problem, and as was mentioned earlier, she does still come to doubt whether she was indeed ill. However, when all these factors come to bear, and we feel we can guess how this will play out because we have been desensitised to all this by films like Inception, Disparue has one more trick up its sleeve. It is a slight of hand that has left me genuinely shaken, craving answers, and a closure that the film’s 13 minute run-time will never deliver. It is cruel to put an audience through that, but Disparue is all the better for it.
As with most independent shorts, this review inevitably comes with a “however” attached. The mid-section of the film does seem rushed, and minimalistic. In contrast with the slow-burn of the rest of this chilling thriller, it has been noticeably expedited, perhaps due to limitations of the filmmaker’s resources, or perhaps due to an impatience to deliver the aforementioned coup-de-grace to the audience’s collective psyche. At the same time, some of the editing in this section becomes slap-dash, and there is an unwanted break with the silence of the earlier periods to introduce music, possibly to carry the audience through a sequence which the film is aware is less accomplished.
No matter, though, because frankly it is a good sign that any reviewer is able to tell a filmmaker “I expect more of you” than implying they have reached their zenith already. Bentosela has yet to reach his peak, and like the ending to his film this has left me hungry for more. The Writer/Director and his team have tapped into a raw emotional realism here, and it is one that they should build on in the future. I for one anticipate whatever comes next with great enthusiasm.
The art of short filmmaking is to be able to pay attention to detail and be willing to hold off the urge to rush due against time limitations. Largely, Disparue has accomplished this, but with enough room still to grow that Bentosela can approach his future projects knowing his opus is still to be made. If he and his colleagues can learn their lessons from this film, then they are well on their way to mastering their craft.