Berlinale 2019 Review: ‘I Was at Home, But’ struggles to find meaning in its existential themes

Cinema does not need to be coherent to be understood. Some art is not made to be chronological, or easily understandable, or accessible to a wide audience. Equally, however, criticism has the right – or even the responsibility – to dismantle the layers of a film and peer at what’s underneath, so that we may debate the meaning which lofty imagery may convey. The problem with I Was at Home, But, is that this meaning never really appears, leaving nothing but frameless minimalism masquerading as a greater film.

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‘I Was at Home, But’ (2019) © Nachmittagfilm

The premise of the film is as follows: a thirteen-year-old boy runs away from home and lives wild for a week, leading to the amputation of a toe and further stress for his emotionally unstable mother Astrid (Maren Eggert). Recently widowed, she engages in a relationship with her children’s tennis coach whilst struggling to connect with either her son or her daughter. Astrid forms the constant within the film’s loose narrative, as she struggles with an existentialism seemingly triggered by the boy’s reappearance.

Various unrelated sequences of dialogue establish Astrid as cold and pedantic; she argues with a man she meets on the street for little reason, just as she violently shakes off the affection of her children. Despite this worthy picture of an angry woman, her characterisation never really goes anywhere. Astrid is cruel, but she is cruel throughout the film’s 100 minute runtime, with no background nor explanation to her coldness. In one uncomfortable scene, she screams at her children to get away from her after they make too much noise – a familiar image to anyone who has ever suffered a difficult parental relationship. Set alone, this could be viewed as a stark portrayal of imperfect motherhood, backed by a suffocatingly bleak atmosphere. But Astrid’s outburst is contextless, and the film provides no relief to round Astrid into a three-dimensional character, leaving her to exist as little more than an object amidst Schanelec’s unfocused, pretentious gaze.

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Maren Eggert and Dane Komljen in ‘I Was at Home, But’ (2019) © Nachmittagfilm

Other disparate elements make up this ill-fitting puzzle, from an opening shot of a dog killing a rabbit, to a static retelling of Hamlet by a group of schoolchildren (it sounds intriguing, but after about five minutes you’ll be losing the will to live). Perhaps with the benefit of several watches and hours of careful thought, greater metaphors could be pieced together from these snapshots. Academic essays may well benefit from Schanelec’s admirably distinct style, characterised by long, brooding takes and sparse emotional landscapes. Searching in vain for something tangible between these randomly assembled scenes, however, does not make for a pleasant experience: indeed, it’s enough to send this viewer to sleep.

Read the rest of our Berlinale 2019 coverage here.

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