Reviews Short Narrative

La Chambre aux Oiseaux [The Bird Room] (2019) – 4.5 stars

Director: Noemi d’Ursel

Writers: Noemi d’Ursel

Cast: Marie Roche d’Ursel, Lily Moreau, Rita Lopez, Manoel Dupont, Guillaume Alexandre, Odile Mathieu

Running time: 27mins

One of the things fledgling artists of any medium are told to do is to make art around what you know. On one level this is common sense; if you look at your career like building a house, you start at the bottom with solid foundations, before moving on to more intricate work later. The problem is that the idea of writing/painting/filming what you know is deceptively complex; and that means you need a level of self-awareness about what you are doing, without which you will not produce something your audience can engage with.

For this reason, it is easy to see why so many filmmakers look to address family life; it’s something they do not have to have been ‘out in the wider world’ to experience. On the surface this seems like a good way for your work to get as wide a reach as possible; it is almost (there are obviously exceptions) a universal theme, as whatever the shape and form family life takes for people, most of us have lived it one way or another. The issue comes from having to be self-aware about it.

Many filmmakers have tried to address the underlying relationships and ideology of family life and the largest number of this have failed. In the mainstream, films like August: Osage County portray families as uniquely tyrannical, mean spirited messes, while in independent cinema drawn out episodes such as La Rosa és Morta centre on one-dimensional saboteurs, each invested in inflicting misery on those around them to empower themselves.

While this is no doubt the case for some families, however, filmmakers need to be aware that this also makes for an utterly abrasive cinematic environment, where a lack of redeeming features in the cast, or an absence of a more relatable outsider means that we have no reason to engage with the on-screen occurrences. After all, while the adage goes that you can’t choose your family; you can certainly choose which films to spend your time on.

One of the most impressive things about Marie Vandelannoote’s Funeral was that it managed to navigate this – providing us fully-rounded characters that could be caring and contemptible all at once, and could have a believable arc we could invest in as a result. That is also true of Noemi d’Ursel’s stunning short film La Chambre aux Oiseaux. It is a masterful blend of gorgeous audio-visual textures, bitter-sweet memories, and individual liberation, all centred around a bitter familial conflict.

Set in a wealthy household, the film begins as the family is rocked by the death of its faceless father. Tensions immediately bubble to the surface in this sterile, loveless mansion, as a young Marie (Rita Lopez) is accosted by her elder brother Jean (Manoel Dupont). “No one is here to protect you now,” he shrieks at his small sister, simmering with inner rage, before telling Marie to go and inspect the body herself. There is no goodbye to follow, Marie brushes the cold hand of the departed patriarch, and there is no suggestion that their relationship was ever any warmer than this.

13 years later, the grown-up Marie (Lily Moreau) leaves home, to the disdain of her mother. “She’s leaving me,” she spits to her physician. “When she returns, I will probably be dead.”

The tone is more than a little reminiscent of Albert Steptoe; a resentful, sniping embodiment of super-ego, doing its best to prevent its younger counter-part of leading the kind of life it missed out on. It speaks to the toxicity of the household as a whole; one where emotional discord has been swept under the rug, and feelings never spoken of for fear of seeming common. It is a point hammered home by Jean’s reaction to Marie’s exit. He stands motionless, smirking from the window.

Initially, this seems to be in-keeping with the selfish Lord Snot figure we see in the wake of his father’s death – now he is simply glad that he is finally the lone child in the manner again – but there is more going on here. The ending of his particular arc shows his smile to be a slipping of that mask – he is glad his sister is escaping, but knows he is unable to do make the same exit. He is too conditioned as a reproduction of his parents and their repressive ideology, so his goodbye to Marie stands as his sole admission that he ever cared about her.

This is a turning point for Marie, meanwhile. The remainder of the story centres on how she learns to give and receive affection, and to live a fulfilled life without regrets. At the same time, however, what we have learned from her brother suggests that the household she was born into was not solely populated by spiteful, joyless monsters; rather it was home to people – people who were conditioned by their social station to live sad and distant lives, unable to break free of their own ideological confines.

Since it appears to be Noemi d’Ursel’s grandmother (Marie Roche d’Ursel) who plays Marie in her old age, on some level this has to be the young filmmaker practicing “write what you know.” The key here is that she has done so while displaying a deft touch of self-awareness by emphasising redemptive traits even in the apparent antagonist of the piece. This gives the story an authenticity, while avoiding the exploitative and tiresome feel of the traumatic August: Osage County et al.

In terms of critique, there is not much which can genuinely be offered here. The only thing which d’ Ursel should be encouraged to do is take more risks with her future projects. The subject might be personal – and for that reason centring at least one film in what will likely be a long and fruitful career is justified – but it is not especially original. Mainstream cinema is awash with tales of emotional and sexual repression among society’s upper-crust, and we have seen the toxicity this environment produces in everything from Titanic to There Will Be Blood.

The primary reason for this is that the wealthy class of people who happen to control the purse-strings of the film industry – as well as its award bodies – love nothing more than to see stories about themselves. The problem is then, that it is all well and good for those born into privilege to learn the importance of sexual and emotional liberation – but this is a journey which is almost exclusively the preserve of those who cannot afford it. It would be far more interesting – in my opinion at least – to see how someone without the monetary and social fortitude of the landed gentry would undertake this character arc, and what different hurdles they might be faced with due to the station they were born into.

La Chambre gives me hope about d’Ursel being willing and able to take such stories in her stride, however. The conclusions the film reaches do not piggy-back the earthy joys of the poor – as per James Cameron in Titanic – instead, Marie’s inclination to help others as a doctor is what initially draws her from the fusty swamp of ruling class self-flagellation. As a result, while this filmmaker’s next project might be less familiar to her, I have little doubt that it will be just as well-rounded; just as authentic.

Measured and artistic all at once, Marie d’Ursel’s film is a stunning balancing act. It is an engaging and well-paced piece, while handling the topic of an emotionally repressed family without coming across as judgemental or sensationalist. While it might not be especially innovative in its socio-political setting, d’Ursel clearly has the tool-kit to move forward and tell stories from beyond this particular caste, something many others struggle to.

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