[…] If «Family Portrait» is a dream, or has the qualities of one, it is much less important what everyone is doing than why they are doing it…
Together with Anna Geary-Meyer’s text on the film, PM Cicchetti interviewed Lucy Kerr in Locarno (see below).
Dream analysis is famously a free-for-all; lately, a relatively streamlined Jungian idea has gained traction in pop psychology, wherein every part of the dream, every character and setting, is understood to represent something of the dreamer, no aspect foreign or external. There would be a number of reasons for this having worked its way into the culture, one good one being that it renders the dream content significantly less threatening. If you dream about showering with your coworker, it’s not because deep down, you want to leave your relationship and begin a messy office affair, but because your coworker represents some quality you have subconsciously disowned but desire to reintegrate, to bring that which is within him to be within you. Or you want to fuck him.
Family Portrait, Lucy Kerr’s first feature, can be compared to a dream: the film’s meandering focus, its references to being underwater, both in plot and sound, its search for something that isn’t quite what or where one thinks. It will also, naturally, be compared to a portrait. The composition is such: a sprawling, well-off Texan family (it’s suggested that they come from oil money) has congregated at the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic to take a family portrait which will be used for the matriarch’s annual Christmas card project. No one is particularly bothered when, for various reasons, the photo session is delayed, except for Katy (played by Deragh Campbell) and her Polish photographer boyfriend, Olek, who is incomprehensibly hungry and “frustrated” that his girlfriend’s family doesn’t really care where Poland is and, later that morning, that he doesn’t know if he should eat his oatmeal or not (we don’t know if he has dietary restrictions, a serious health condition, or is practicing intermittent fasting).
Boyfriends will famously make their hunger your problem. In Family Portrait, which takes place over a single morning (the film runs just over 70 minutes), it’s the contagion of Olek’s impatience to shoot the photos, eat his breakfast, and get the hell out of Texas that fuels – outwardly, anyways – Katy’s obsessive hunt for her mother. In the pre-photo hubbub, somewhere between tasking the family’s maid, Maria, with preparing a “Mexican breakfast” (Maria is probably Mexican) and breaking the news that Katy’s step-cousin has just died of complications related to “a virus,” the matriarch has gone missing.
«When are we gonna take the picture!?» Katy asks, over and over, in a high-pitched falsetto that I recognize because it’s the way I speak when I’m worked up about something and want to seem glamorously worked up about it. Until Katy’s mother is located, the picture can’t be taken, and for some reason this means that Olek cannot eat his oatmeal and will remain sullen or, worse, that they’ll miss their flight and be stuck in Texas. The increasingly tense search party of one – Campbell lends Katy a great deal of energy, but not necessarily ease or clarity – sets off, heading for the woods.
Meanwhile, Katy’s sisters swap stories about illnesses, brushes with death, and mental tics. Fathers and uncles reminisce. Children play. The groundskeeper arrives to repair something. Two girls swim in the river and are, in time, replaced by two black waterfowl. Taken literally, i.e. as a portrait, the film’s charged content is the cross-sampling of activities we observe while the picture fails to be taken. We’re given casual yet intimate access to a family unit at a particular socioeconomic juncture: they are rich enough, bring a mixed bag of liberal and conservative talking points to the table, and relate to each other with relative ease, without anything of grave importance to discuss. Katy makes a point of thanking Maria for her help; neither of her parents seems bothered by the optics of ordering their maid around, though they never do so that gratuitously. In this way, Kerr remains mercifully non-judgemental to her characters. Katy’s father, for example, doesn’t want to admit that the “virus” may have been responsible for his young relative’s death, so he sticks to his guns about hospitals being a place where people often pick up worse illnesses than they came in with. He’s not wrong.
If Family Portrait is a dream, or has the qualities of one, it is much less important what everyone is doing than why they are doing it – in particular why Katy thinks, or dreams, they are doing it. In this sense, the film is less concerned with the family than it is with Katy, a young woman for whom less is fixed in place as compared with her sisters or parents, who seem to unselfconsciously relate to one another from established positions. Olek is her boyfriend, but he’s taking the photograph rather than appearing in it, their relationship not yet legitimized by marriage. Will it be, one day? The opening scene of the present-tense narration suggests that the unsettled photographer may need to attend to an inner journey of his own.
Family Portrait’s first spoken lines have Katy recounting a bad dream to Olek. «Where did my mother go when she would leave her empty gaze fixed on me?», she reads from her phone. In deciphering dreams, psychoanalysis questions everything. What gender is the person chasing you, who do they remind you of, and what got you here in the first place – were you careless, hasty, desperate? As Katy is compelled to search the nearby woods later that morning, our focus narrows so we can’t see her lower body moving; we lurch forward with her on her possessed hunt. She is searching for her mother, but what is mother in this dream – her desire for orientation, for wealth, for children? Why can’t she find her, and why does no one else care? Katy’s read as somewhat of an outsider, but it’s possible she wants in more than she consciously knows.
The film’s climax is an incredibly successful portrayal of the “dream feeling” of becoming hopelessly sidetracked while trying to complete a straightforward task, and finds the protagonist getting rather involved with what has thus far served as the film’s serene backdrop (and becomes, symbolically, the underworld of her own subconscious). When picture time rolls around, Katy is soaking wet, the camera (Kerr’s, not Olek’s) all but hugging her, so that the others become visible only as they are related to her. This is Katy’s dream, hers to interpret as she sees fit – or to repress, if its content is deemed too destabilizing. There’s always another night.
Coming back to ourselves: an interview with Lucy Kerr
It’s close to 11 a.m. and something of the morning still lingers in the air when I sit down with Lucy Kerr in front of a cappuccino and a ginseng coffee. We are in the foyer of the casino in Locarno, where her debut feature Family Portrait has premiered this year in the Cineasti del Presente strand.
-the house and the river-
PM Cicchetti (PC): I’d like to start with a question about the setting. I have read that the house we see in the film is actually your grandparents’ house: what was the process like of shooting in a place that is so familiar and intimate to you? Did you find it strange, or did your personal connection to the house add meaning to the film?
Lucy Kerr (LK): Probably both. At first it was odd, turning the place into a set, having to think about the camera and how to capture on film this place that I am so very familiar with. I’ve spent time there since I was a kid – my grandparents set it up as a vacation home in the 1960s, and it’s full of strange family relics, like the oil-related artefacts, which are there because my grandfather was in the oil industry. So yeah, it was definitely strange and a little disorienting at first, but at the same time it also felt very right. It’s a special place to me, particularly because of the river. In Texas everything is private property, but there, across the river, the land is just really wild. I was drawn to that contrast, between the private property of the house, a space perfectly kept and kind of colonized by the family, and the space across the river, which still has the memory of how things were before the enclosure of the land.
PC: Away from the reach and rules of the house?
LK: (nodding) In the film, you see portraits of people on the lawn all around the property, inhabiting their own world: the two girls under the deck tearing up the fish, for example – that was something I did when I was six years old with my friend. We just dug our fingers into these fish and tore apart their guts, and I still remember that so vividly. It was such a strange thing to be doing for us two young girls. Then we took the meat out; my mom cooked it for us, and we all ate it.
LK: Oh yeah. It’s always been very important to my mom to have this perfect image of the family, but at the same time she grew up in a remote and desert part of West Texas, so she was, like, riding, working on a ranch, herding sheep… very much getting her hands dirty, and she always encouraged us to do that too. And those to me are the two faces of the Southern identity, in a sense: the frame of propriety, but also the relationship with the land, the grit, the manual skills.
PC: So there’s intimacy in the house, but also memory, and connection to the land outside?
LK: Yeah, though sometimes there’s alienation inside the house too. My grandparents’ presence is so strong, and many of their relics I don't like much: they refer back to the Confederacy, or the oil industry in Texas… not to mention the many Bush books, which you also see in the little cottage scene. I understand the admiration, because they were from Houston like Bush, but to me it feels strange.
For those sequences I tried to listen to the location… That process led to some significant changes in the film.
PC: Let’s talk some more about the river. What was your approach to those sequences where Katy leaves the house and ventures across the water? Did you have them in your mind since early on?
LK: For those sequences I tried to listen to the location. Rob Rice, who was my directorial advisor, script supervisor, and one of the additional writers, encouraged me early on to observe the energy of the place and the people in it. It's such a big expansive lawn with so many trees, so people would go off around the property and do their own thing, and we'd kind of just watch them, or see what the kids were doing, and write things down. That process led to some significant changes in the film. For example, I came in thinking that when the film breaks into the second half Olek, the Polish boyfriend, would be in the forest. But then, on set, I realized the film was really about Katy searching for her mom, so we decided that she needed to be across the river too, and that intuition led to the second half becoming more like an inverse of the first section. I had just taught Apichatpong’s Tropical Malady a few weeks before in one of my classes – so that sort of bifurcation was already on my mind, between realism first and then into the forest for this magical, mystical experience.
PC: So Katy’s sequences in the forest were not originally planned?
LK: The sequence where the mother and the daughter swim together and sit on the rock, that was something we thought of on set. But the shot with the birds, for example, that was not planned at all. They were just sitting on the rock and we were like, wow, this is such a blessing.
PC: What kind of birds are they?
LK: They're vultures actually, birds that eat dead animals, yeah. You see many vultures constantly circling around the property, which I found interesting. The underwater sequence was also a last-minute idea. Lidia Nikonova, the cinematographer, felt we really needed it and pushed for it, so my producer had to go find the underwater kit and all that.
PC: It seems like the river became a turning point for the film, symbolically.
LK: Everyone is drawn to the river, both my family when they go out there, and everyone in the crew when we were on set. The river has this force that brings you in. When I’m there with my family, sometimes there's a lot of conflict or unspoken pain. In the South, you kind of have to hide your pain to present this positive image. The river is a respite from that. A space of coming back to ourselves as animals, like the slug or the birds in the film.
-images, the mirror stage, and the purgatory-
PC: It seems to me that the film is, among other things, interested in how private and public images are made and used. I’m thinking about the titular family portrait, of course, but also about the grandfather’s wartime photograph.
LK: Yeah, and that's so interesting. Both pictures are failed images, somehow. The anecdote the father tells in the film, about the WW2 picture that turns up at the Vietnam memorial, that’s something that actually happened with my younger sister. There's this famous picture of my grandfather laying on a stretcher, after he was shot in the leg during WW2. But then my sister went to the Vietnam War Memorial and there it was, Photoshopped on a t-shirt that said “remember Vietnam”. I've always found it such a strange story. In the film, the father says «you can't really trust an image», but image-making has always been seductive to people, and pictures end up affecting us in ways we're not really aware of. That speaks to the family portrait too: for the mother it really represents stability, prosperity, and lack of conflict. And so each year Christmas cards get sent out carrying that same picture – which is something my mom also does: she sends her Christmas card out to 600 people. The image is a fiction – but it’s a powerful one.
The WW2 photograph and the Christmas cards function in that way: the family uses them as a way to construct their identity, but ultimately it’s an illusion – a misrecognition.
PC: I wonder, is the problem that the images themselves are inauthentic, or is it the way in which we are using them?
LK: I’m very much into the concept of the mirror stage. You know, when we first look in the mirror to recognize ourselves, at like six months old, and suddenly we start to create the world around us. The mirror image is a fiction, because it gives us an illusion of what our body is in relation to the world. But then we become accustomed to this illusion, and the mirror itself becomes very seductive for us. The WW2 photograph and the Christmas cards function in that way: the family uses them as a way to construct their identity, but ultimately it’s an illusion – a misrecognition. That’s because the mirror image tells us we’re separate from one another and from the environment, and we’re not – this speaks again to the sequences in the river: our bodies are more continuous and fluid than we think.
PC: Is there a specific cultural and national angle to this theme? I’m thinking of the historical reverberations of the WW2 photograph.
LK: Oh yeah, that's in it too – I didn't mention it but Olek, who's the character from Poland, is meant to show how someone thrown into this family from the outside is faced with this American world-view that’s a mixture of consumerism and Cold War-era assumptions about Eastern Europeans, even though Poland wasn't even in the Soviet Union. My husband is Latvian and he gets a lot of that. Same goes for the Vietnam war. The caretaker of the property tells that story off-screen, about his dad flying the Huey assault helicopters: that was something that actually happened on set – that actor tells that story about his father all the time to people. There’s nationalism and pride in what his father did, but at the same time it’s revealing to me, this holding onto that memory, while everything is falling apart. And you're like, look at this.
PC: Is there something specific to American culture, behind this need to hold onto past memories and views?
LK: That's a good question. I think it's something that's been happening for a long time in the US. And many people didn't see it until Trump, but it was happening before that. I mean, it’s this constant need to assert the dominance and power of the country, to commit violence in the name of its moral superiority – I think that’s where the crisis comes from. And that's kind of what the Christmas card picture represents: the need to maintain this, you know, fiction of American excellence. But on the smaller scale, in the microcosm of a family – that’s where you see things begin to fall apart. Or, worse, that’s when people end up stuck in purgatory, unable to move forward.
PC: I notice you used the word “purgatory”. Is that because “purgatory” implies the possibility of redemption?
LK: Maybe. But you’ve got to be careful not being complicit. When I say I'm from Texas, people are like, oh, Texas, well, you know, Austin’s cool: the implication is that everyone else is very bigoted, so, as long as you are not that, you’re fine. But there are a lot of problems in Austin, tech overlords and gentrification. You're a progressive, the word has within it this notion of progressing, but so often it's being complicit. Outwardly, the family in the film does not look like stereotypical Texas, bigoted and Republican, but like the Poe poem suggests, they keep circling back to the same spot. Maybe there is possibility for them to depart. But for now they're there, in a limbo.
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Family Portrait | Film | Lucy Kerr | USA 2023 | 78’ | Locarno Film Festival 2023
First published: August 12, 2023