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FILMS Netherlands

Among Us, a family tragedy in the suburbs

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- In Among Us, a film unveiled last year in Locarno, Marco Van Geffen draws the detached, clinical portrait of a young au pair walled up in her own silence

Among Us, a family tragedy in the suburbs

In Among Us [+see also:
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Ilse and Peter are about to have their second child. To take care of their growing young family, they welcome Ewa, a young Polish au pair, into their home. Ewa is charming, but her extreme shyness makes communicating difficult. Inhibited by the language barrier, and especially scared to do or say something wrong, Ewa isolates herself each day a little more. She finds refuge with the couple’s little boy, and tries to become closer to Aga, another Polish au pair, but apart from their job they have absolutely nothing in common. Aga is brassy and direct, while Ewa is silent and discreet. One day, Ewa thinks that she has discovered a secret that could turn her adopted family and the whole community’s lives upside down. Confused, she does not know who to talk to. Her shyness could prove to be fatal for those to whom she is closest…

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Although the film is set to quite a classic theme -- the Big Bad Wolf is after nice Little Red Riding Hood --, director Marc van Geffen doubly disorientates his audience: geographically (by setting his story in an extremely boring Dutch residential area), and narratively, by unravelling his tale in three sections, each corresponding to a character’s point of view. This triptych, even elliptical construction, means that information is only very slowly revealed to the audience. What we initially think is a sociological drama about culture shock slowly turns into a psychological thriller, in which Ewa’s detached despair contrasts with neat peri-urban landscapes and a soulless residential neighbourhood.

The first characters to be scrutinised are Peter and Ilse. They are at first confused, then gently exasperated by the young woman’s silence. But what if this apparently ideal couple was in fact hiding something? Especially as, despite their endless complaints that they cannot communicate with Ewa, their listening skills are not particularly great either…

The second character to be examined is Aga. But this second section, which clearly serves to generate empathy for a character that the director will then not hesitate to sacrifice, fails to achieve its objective and proves to be the story’s weak point. In this section, we don’t discover anything new, nothing that the first part hadn’t already implied or that the third part won’t later make clear, even if it does stress the impending danger.

Finally, the third section focuses on the story’s main character, Ewa. Although her extreme shyness remains somewhat of a mystery, this section does at least give reasons for her behaviour and progressive isolation.

This method may be effective, but it is a little too obvious to generate as much emotion as would normally be the case with such a threat to the community. But the story’s puzzle-like construction does maintain the suspense, and Ewa’s lack of confidence lets us imagine, until the end, that perhaps she is actually an untrustworthy narrator, that perhaps her terror stems from some form of incontrollable paranoia... We cannot help but think, right up until the end, that perhaps she is not quite the victim that the film makes her out to be.

Screened in the competition at the tenth Brussels Film Festival, Among Us, produced by Lemming Film, is the first part in a trilogy about the "tragedy of the happy family". The second instalment, In Your Name, took part in Cannes' last Atelier de la Cinéfondation, where it won the Arte Award.

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(Translated from French)

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