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MIFF 2020
'Lara' is a chillingly complex study of disappointment

Corinna Harfouch stars in Jan-Ole Gerster's new film "Lara"
© Lara

Director Jan-Ole Gerster's sophomore film Lara, showing at this year's online-only Melbourne International Film Festival, sees German actor Corinna Harfouch serve up an intricate character study.

By Sarah Ward

A film about an ex-aspiring pianist stomaching the day of her talented musician son’s first major recital — a day that also happens to be her own 60th birthday — Lara unsurprisingly features footage of hands tickling the ivories. In a late scene, fingers fly fast and furiously, their tapping and bouncing giving rise to a sonic, melodic onslaught, and their frenetic movement almost seeming the product of appendages thinking and operating independently. Of course, the manner in which shots of music being played are routinely staged in cinema contributes to this feeling. Given that actors can’t be expected to also be concert-level pianists, it’s common practice for the camera to not only hone in on an more accomplished performer’s hands as they slide back and forth across the keys, but to separate them from the rest of the character they’re standing in for. Cue tight close-ups that endeavour not to betray the fact that someone else is hitting the notes and, after a while, that take on a disembodied air. The Addams Family’s scampering Thing would definitely be proud.
In Lara, the sight of quick-moving fingers appearing to act on their own volition proves not just eye-catching, but climactic. It also perfectly encapsulates this prickly yet engrossing German drama. Over the course of one day, titular character Lara Jenkins (Corinna Harfouch) flits around Berlin with the feverishness of hands over a keyboard, with her overly confident, frequently curt, usually plain rude behaviour rarely perturbed by anything around her. There’s no situation that Lara won’t turn into an awkward, uncomfortable, often hurtful mess, even if it’s apparent that that isn’t what she really wants or intends. A character study of a bitterly sorrowful woman who both knows that fact and refuses to address it in any meaningful way, Lara is a movie about a woman as compelled to act the way she does as a pianist’s hands are to dance across their preferred instrument. Tom Schilling plays the role of the talented musician in "Lara" Tom Schilling plays the role of the talented son in "Lara," but the spotlight stays trained on Corinna Harfouch | © Lara

A portrait of perennial chagrin

The question plaguing the film from the outset is obvious: why? Lara is first spied peering over the German capital from her high-rise apartment window, moving a chair next to the opening, then preparing to leap out into the dawn, and the reasons behind the former public servant’s thwarted suicide attempt and her demeanour in general amass over the course of the movie. Making his sophomore feature eight years after Oh Boy! became a hit, director Jan-Ole Gerster keeps close to his protagonist over Lara’s 98 minutes, allowing her actions — and simply spending time in her presence — to convey more than a big explanation ever could. A sizeable reason for her perennial chagrin emerges eventually, but it’s also the film’s coda; by the time that Blaz Kutin’s (We’ve Never Been to Venice) script reaches that point, viewers have already seen, explored and felt Lara’s disgruntlement many times over.
When her plan to jump out of this life is interrupted by police knocking at her door — to enlist her help as a witness to the search of an adjacent apartment — Lara is far from happy. But she does what she has obviously done so often before, donning her spiky facade, soldiering on and making the experience unpleasant for everyone. Indeed, even as her neighbour Mr Czerny (André Jung) tries to defuse the delicate situation with kindness, she remains arrogant and dour. That’s a pattern that’ll repeat over the day with the clearly affectionate gentleman. With everyone else, including the son (Tom Schilling) who won’t take her calls, the ex-husband (Rainer Bock) she despises, the elderly mother (Gudrun Ritter) she resents and the ex-colleagues (Hildegard Schroedter and Kathleen Morgeneyer) she endeavours to strong-arm into attending the evening’s recital, Lara is haughty at best and toxic at worst.

A spiky protagonist

As scored with an unshakeable sense of tension and foreboding, Kutin’s script veers between episodic encounters, as Lara attempts to track down her son, give away the final 22 tickets she’s just bought to his performance and convince her own former piano teacher (Volkmar Kleinert) to come along. She shops for a new cocktail dress, too, and buys a diet cake that her mother doesn’t want. Piece by piece, as directed with both intimacy and a commitment to its central figure’s thorniness by Gerster, a clear portrait arises — and so does a chillingly complex study of disappointment, the ease in which it can spring from the decisions of others and its festering lifelong impact. The film never dares to soften Lara. It doesn’t expect audiences to wholeheartedly warm to her, to excuse her or to see past her poisonous behaviour, and nor could it when she’s breaking the violin bow of her son’s girlfriend (Mala Emde) one moment, then telling her only child that the original composition he’s premiering that night is trite and cutesy. But Lara deeply understands its eponymous character, and ensures that viewers do as well.
Gerster’s keen eye for observation, his patience in letting scenes fill the time they need and his winning ways with his actors were all first established with Schilling and Oh Boy!; however here, with a grim-faced, often chain-smoking, rarely sympathetic Harfouch, he couldn’t have made a better casting choice. Lara is equally bristling and brittle — aggressive and unwelcome to come into contact with, hard and sharp, but also capable of breaking internally — and the veteran star of Downfall conveys that complicated mix without ever downplaying the character’s barbed demeanour or her seething pain. To watch Harfouch is to watch a bravura performance with force and energy, but also intricacy and interiority, all to make plain how Lara’s deep-seated, distressing, often self-sabotaging gruffness seemingly has a mind of its own. In fact, even when she’s stern, stoic and deliberate, which is most of the time, she’s as fast, furious and visceral in her expression of Lara’s decades-old unhappiness as those entrancingly fleet fingers that mark the film’s crescendo.

Lara is screening at this year's online edition of the Melbourne International Film Festival.