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BLACK NIGHTS 2017 Competition

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Vacuum: HIV in the home

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- Christine Repond is back with an intimate drama starring the fantastic Barbara Auer, who one day finds out she is HIV-positive

Vacuum: HIV in the home
Barbara Auer in Vacuum

The premiere of Vacuum [+see also:
trailer
interview: Christine Repond
film profile
]
, the second feature by Swiss director Christine Repond, was held in the official competition of the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. The Berne-born, Munich-based filmmaker is making her return seven years after Silver Forest (2010) – and she does so with a topic and a tone that are less aggressive and more intimate this time around.

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The story, which she co-wrote with Silvia Wolkan, is relatively straightforward: Meredith (Barbara Auer) is a grandmother who is happily married to André (Robert Hunger-Bühler), and whose life takes an unexpected and dramatic turn: after a routine blood test, she discovers that she is HIV-positive, and the infection cannot have come from anyone other than her husband. Knowing that you’re a carrier of HIV, no matter how effectively the infection can be treated today, inevitably turns your family life upside down: it’s the moment when unpleasant secrets are revealed; your marriage can hit the skids, not just because of a lack of trust, but also because of the way the revelation disrupts your private life; you have to find a way to tell your children, and so on.

Repond, who loosely based her film on the story of a patient of a doctor friend of hers, immerses us in Meredith’s point of view with a restrained and reserved mise-en-scène (the soundtrack, for example, is practically non-existent, and whenever it does make an entrance, it is intradiegetic), but manages to stay up-close and personal at the same time. Thus the director brings the camera right up to her characters and moves it around in search of the emotion conveyed by the actors’ faces and bodies, but without ever falling into the trap of voyeurism, sentimentality or awkwardness. In fact, the film’s greatest asset is that its commitment to honesty and authenticity outweighs the risks taken (one such example being the explicit sex scene), as if they were a completely natural way of universalising a domestic story.

In addition to the context of the relationship between Meredith and André, we must mention their quintessentially bourgeois character. This serves to emphasise their psychological states through various parallels and metaphors: as we watch Meredith’s confused, frail face, we hear that André is winning his tennis match; at the theatre, a performer dances with the lifeless body of his partner; Meredith rips a roof off one of André’s work mock-ups and sweeps up the dead leaves that have fallen into an empty swimming pool… Although the movie tends to lean on secondary story lines that are somewhat weak (the celebration of the anniversary, the group therapy sessions, André’s career plans…), it advances slowly but surely until it has firmly laid down the dilemmas that we sense in the situation at the start (but without necessarily resolving them): how does one come to terms with a reality that initially appears inconceivable? What to do when we are stripped of our past? When do appearances become untenable? When does the truth become unsustainable? What kind of domestic continuity can follow on from disloyalty? How can one forgive when there is no way to forget…?

There is no question that the seven-year gestation period for Vacuum, produced by Dschoint Ventschr, was essential for Repond to be able to offer an equally restrained and commendable diagnosis of the havoc wreaked by an illness that, unfortunately, or simply out of carelessness, is still very much present in our societies today.

(Translated from Spanish)

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