I was perhaps 15 minutes into Florian Zeller’s The Father—adapted from his 2012 play Le Père—before I pushed the Stop button and began the film again. It was somewhere around that mark that I came to the stark realization I was approaching it all wrong, foisting my own expectations onto an experience that isn’t compatible with any of them.
The problem, I think, comes from the fact that the trailer—and indeed the first scene—sets you up for a film of the sort Eddie Izzard once described as “Room with a View with a Staircase and a Pond,” just with the added drama of a daughter
struggling to care for her father, who suffers from dementia. Truth be told, that could have been a pretty good film, but The Father is not that film. It’s something far more interesting, challenging, impactful, infuriating, and infinitely more meaningful.
Much of its brilliance comes from the fact that Zeller tells the story from the father’s point of view, which has the effect of taking the unreliable-narrator trope and cranking it to 11 in the most fascinating ways. Since the father doesn’t experience time linearly and he isn’t (can’t be) certain what is real, and since the past is more vivid and tangible to him than the present, he of course goes through all the stages of confusion, disorientation, rage, and paranoia familiar to any of us who’ve watched a loved one suffer the indignities of dementia.
Zeller uses all the cinematic tools at his disposal to force
THE FATHER AT A GLANCE
This tale of dementia turns out to have more in common with Kubrick’s The Shining than with Room with a View.
Kaleidescape’s UHD/HDR10 presentation is faultless.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack mainly uses the front three channels, which suits the movie perfectly since much of the audio is dialogue.
these emotions on the viewer, which results in a film that’s hard to pin down in terms of genre. The ratcheting tension and discomfort evoke the trappings of psychological thriller, but there are no thrills to uncover here. The elements of disorientation and alienation give the work a somewhat Kafkaesque vibe, but without the humor. The disconnect from the linear flow of time may cause some to draw parallels between this film and Christopher Nolan’s Memento, but I only bring that up to dismiss it out of hand. The Father is nowhere near that gimmicky.
The closest comparison I could make, I suppose, would be Kubrick’s The Shining, which would put The Father in the tradition of horror, despite the complete lack of the supernatural. That notion resonates with me, but not completely. I think I kept returning to The Shining as a point of reference because Zeller uses architecture in a way that’s not dissimilar to Kubrick’s
employment of spatial contradictions to keep the viewer off balance. The Father, by contrast, uses temporal inconsistencies, combined with spatial similarities, to pull the viewer in two different directions. There’s a false sense of security that comes from thinking we know where (and, indeed, when) we are, based on visual clues that may or may not be dependable anchors.
All of these points of reference and attempts to find some reliable ground to stand on did pull me out of the experience of The Father to some degree at first. I also found myself somewhat consumed by thoughts of how this story would unfold on the stage, because stagecraft must, in some way,
change the telling of it. Unlike so many stage-to-screen adaptations, this one is nearly impossible to imagine unfolding in an auditorium, surrounded by an audience.
Around the halfway point of this relatively short, 97-minute film, I found myself gravitating more and more to such intrusive thoughts and reached for the remote to start the movie over once again. Thankfully, I eventually reached the state of mindfulness required to fully appreciateThe Father, but it wasn’t easy.
It was aided, though, by the film’s cinematography, which was captured with a combination of Sony and Zeiss lenses on Sony cameras, and recorded in the X-OCN ST format at 6K resolution. While no home video format can handle the 16-bit dynamic range of X-OCN ST, Kaleidescape’s UHD/HDR10 presentation is faultless. And that matters here because your eye engages with The Father differently from most films. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself clinging to the most minor details in
a vain effort to position yourself within the narrative. You’ll probably spend as much time looking at backgrounds as faces. As such, the enhanced shadow depth and detail are doubly appreciated, especially given that The Father looks to have been shot largely with natural light.
The PVOD rental from Kaleidescape comes with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack, although the mix really only uses the front three channels to any significant degree. And that suits it perfectly, since much of the audio is dialogue, and what remains consists mostly of diegetic music, more often than not delivered via the headphones that serve as one of the father’s hoarded objects. The choice to keep the sound mix somewhat constrained was wise. It’s a difficult enough film to watch without the added distraction of surround sound elements, clever pans, or the like.
As demanding an experience as it is, though, The Father is an important one. The fact that it contains one of Anthony Hopkins’ all-time best performances is, surprisingly, one of the least interesting things about it.
I can count the number of fictional works that have legitimately changed me without taking off my shoes, but I have to add The Father to that list. One can’t
help but come out the other end of this film with a transformed view of those suffering from dementia. I’ve seen this struggle firsthand twice in my life, and in both cases, I’ve done my best to treat the victims of this maddening condition with sympathy. But The Father doesn’t ask you for sympathy, nor compassion. It asks you for empathy. It asks you to experience the world as a person with dementia does. And I can’t say for certain whether its portrayal is 100% accurate to the real-life experience of those so afflicted, but it certainly must be something akin to this.
The Father is playing now in select theaters and is available as a premium VOD rental on most major digital platforms, including Kaleidescape. One way or another, you owe it to yourself to see it.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.