Review: Family Time
- BERLINALE 2023: Tia Kouvo’s debut is a clunky comedy that suffers from an abundance of weak puns, and whose episodic structure would have worked better as a sitcom
A large family gathering during the Christmas holidays is a great moment to see the young and the old display their hypocrisies and come to blows. Despite some weak attempts to save the day, things will rapidly go awry. This sounds like the premise of Mario Monicelli’s cult black comedy Dearest Relatives, Poisonous Relations, but it is actually also the set-up of a new Finnish comedy, Tia Kouvo’s Family Time [+see also:
interview: Tia Kouvo
film profile]. Unfortunately, the picture, screened in the Encounters section of this year’s Berlinale, has very little in common with that 1992 film or with other titles tackling similar family dynamics – a good example being Milica Tomovic’s more recent Celts [+see also:
interview: Milica Tomovic
Family Time opens with a static shot of a door that keeps opening, letting its characters into a house in the country that will serve as the main setting for the story. One by one, the dwelling welcomes the family members visiting the two grandparents – the disenchanted Ella (Leena Uotila) and the alcoholic, self-centred grandfather Lasse (Tom Wentzel).
Notably, every scene is lensed through a static shot. This is a bold choice that needs to be properly scrutinised. First of all, it makes the actors’ work much more challenging, as the ensemble is forced to play for several minutes in very long takes – some of them even feel ten minutes long or more. And it’s sad to say, but the static quality of the shots, along with Kouvo’s choice of adopting a constant deadpan-like mood, dramatically slows the film’s pacing, risks disengaging the viewer and reduces any comedic potential. In other words, many gags are simply too stretched out, feel overly improvised or are interspersed with too many casual conversations. Besides this, these strict framing choices also limit the film’s narrative potential – we often don’t see certain characters saying or doing something crucial, as they’re elsewhere or are just hidden by a wall.
On another painful note, the quality of the puns and jokes is frankly disappointing and far from original, with a few moments hitting new lows. In one scene, for example, Lasse is sent to bed as he’s too drunk to join in with the Christmas Eve dinner. After a while, Ella dresses up as Santa and asks her niece Hilla (Elli Paajanen, arguably the best actress among the cast) to sing a Christmas carol. Lasse wakes up and joins them in the living room. Then he tries to sit in his armchair but ends up soiling himself. And we can clearly see them lying on the carpet – yes, the faeces – in the corner of the screen, followed by the family’s efforts to clean everything up. Or, in another scene during the Christmas dinner, one of the nephews, 20-year-old Simo (Sakari Topi), leaves his grandparents’ house and visits a fast-food joint to grab a burger. He presses a button to dispense some sauce, and the sound we hear is that of flatulence. And that’s it, really, because then we see Simo eating his burger alone before Kouvo cuts to the next scene set in the grandparents’ home. Apparently, scatological humour is still the way to go in 2023.
The movie is divided into two parts. The first takes place during the Christmas holidays, mostly within the walls of the grandparents’ house, whilst the second unfolds presumably in January or whenever the characters go back to work after the Christmas break. In a fair number of scenes, we go out of the country house and see the families dealing with their everyday life – all of these parts feel even more out of context, detached somehow. While a movie can of course choose to follow an “episodic” path, here, Kouvo seems to juggle between a loose, main storyline involving the two grandparents and a huge amount of cinematic “excursuses” that serve as clumsy pretexts to stage weak gags. Some more “emotional”, drama-like moments will follow, but they come too late.
This would have worked way better within a different format – that of a sitcom, for example, where a more finely tuned narrative dished out in small quantities and a shorter running time could have made the whole viewing experience smoother and more pleasant.
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