Director: Sophie Fazio
Writers: Sophie Fazio
Cast: Minna Isabel, Gabriella Koudounaris
Running time: 6mins
Cohabiting is tough for any set of partners – it exposes lovers to each other’s strange and occasionally infuriating habits in a way that the ‘honeymoon phase’ of dating can seldom prepare them for. Before this new stage of perpetual exposure – where all those carefully constructed walls come crashing down to reveal the vulnerable, fallible people behind the curtain of the relationship’s early days – you might not have noticed the way they scrape the fork across their teeth while eating, or not have known they would horde dirty mugs next to the bed, or any number of little foibles they might have concealed thus far.
Enduring relationships don’t necessarily require you to grow to love those faults in their own right – indeed the notoriously repulsive Slavoj Žižek would contend ‘true love’ is loving someone in spite of knowing these things – but even then, there is no guarantee that this will last forever. Contrary to the fables of patriarchal culture which assert that every happily necessitates an ever-after, for a host of reasons, people in committed and affectionate relationships can and do fall out of love. Arguably the saddest part of that is that, when it happens the awareness of those previously mentioned imperfections comes roaring back into the foreground, to torture all those involved in the relationship, and drowning out whatever happy memories there may be.
It’s a complex and emotionally draining scenario in which there are no good or bad guys – but no winners either. Understandably, perhaps, this is also a scenario which rarely seems to figure in mainstream cinema – such a nuanced and emotionally ambiguous reality over the course of a finite narrative arc is nearly impossible to do justice to. As a result, even when it is attempted, someone usually comes across as the ‘antagonist’ – and spoiler, it’s usually a woman – as is the case with films like Blue Valentine or Marriage Story, which attempt a level of ‘even-handedness’, but for the sake of narrative experience tend to show one partner as attempting to abandon the other ‘committed one’.
Sophie Fazio’s directorial debut is all the more gutsy then, not only because seasoned filmmakers with significant industrial weight behind them often fail in this balancing act – but that she has decided to take on such a workload over the course of a six-minute short film. To her credit, Our Song so very nearly pulls it off, too!
Minnie (Minna Isabel) is student struggling with an inflexible workload, and becoming increasingly frustrated by the noisy habits of her partner, musician Bella (Gabriella Koudounaris). The pair are excellent in their respective roles; Isabel as the exasperated workaholic who seems to be transferring the blame for her state onto her partner, and Koudounaris as the wide-eyed idealist, who is almost oppressively upbeat.
It could be all too easy for the film to have gone too far in either direction here – painting Bella as the undeserving recipient of Minnie’s pent-up angst, or conversely showing Bella as a neglectful partner, whose glee in the face of Minnie’s visible discomfort is tone-deaf. That is not to say that Fazio’s script paints them both as blameless in the crumbling of their relationship, but rather that she manages to allude to their respective shortcomings with enough restraint and moderation that the present situation does not have to be one party’s fault.
It’s this level-headed maturity which makes the film’s heart-wrenching conclusion all the more powerful. Bella plays a new composition to Minnie, filled with a sweet sadness which gently broaches the idea that their relationship has come to an end. In that moment, as what will ultimately be their break-up song plays, the couple are able to see beyond their current state of friction.
Minnie is able to move beyond the distracting whistling and humming of her partner, while Bella is able to recall a time before her lover was so distant and walled off. The blissful moment means their parting does not need to be angry or bitter. Both parties are able to appreciate the happiness they gave to each other, in spite of their more recent disputes. Thematically then, this is an excellent handling of a break-up – one which Fazio has handled in a way that many more experienced writers and directors would have struggled to achieve.
There are, of course, a number of notes that Fazio will need to address as she looks to move forward as a filmmaker. For example, the framing of many of the shots is a little blunt to say the least – and for critics and festivals who view large amounts of student content, it can therefore start to seem a little samey, if not lazy. For a film which is refreshingly honest to the point of feeling thematically innovative, that’s a tragedy. It’s also impossible to know from the student’s perspective, as they don’t see that same array of student work; but in future, student-filmmakers would do well to try and spruce their shots up a little with some more creative camera work.
Similarly on that note, there are quite a few theatrical clichés played out in terms of Our Song’s physical storytelling. To show that Minnie is upset, for example, Fazio has actress Minna Isabel do the classic ‘sad hand against a closed door’ shot. Later, meanwhile, we are slipped some pretty on-the-nose shorthand for one of the couple’s warmer memories – the pair tries on ‘wacky’ glasses and hats to show how they bonded together on a shared sense of humour.
The issue with this is that, having done so well delivering a level-handed treatment of a relationship reaching its end, this kind of thing seems a little sloppy – dishonest even. We’ve been trusted as viewers to come to our own conclusions about the complex breakdown of a romantic partnership, but then to have been emotionally strong-armed with these cumbersome emotional inserts is at war with the film’s core themes.
What won’t have helped with this is the film’s length. As mentioned, trying to do what this film does in so short a time is always going to be incredibly difficult, and will always push the filmmaker in question to rely on a couple of cinematic cheat-codes to get through the process within its time limit. With that being said, Fazio should be extremely optimistic about her future projects on this basis – she has an exceptional level of emotional intelligence, which given more time and space will almost certainly develop some deeply moving and tonally mature cinema in the years to come.
Whether their relationships are in their end state or not, this film will give viewers a much-needed kick up the arse with regards to not taking their loved ones for granted, and to make the most of the beautiful memories they create with them. While this film might not be as polished as it might be from a cinematographic standpoint then, it is thematically worth its weight in gold – especially at a time when many of us are bickering with those closest to us amid the coronavirus lock-down.
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