[…] Milstein is all but openly flirting with fiction here – and in doing so he offers an intriguing exploration of the artifice that undergirds documentary filmmaking, almost through the backdoor.
[…] It is exactly this uneasy and uneven self-reflexivity that proves to be film’s greatest asset.
Text: Alan Mattli
What happens to love after marriage? What is the status of marriage in a world where, for many people, the institution is no longer a necessary precondition for social and economic survival? And is such a thing as long-term monogamous commitment even a realistic prospect?
At first glance the questions that animate Monogamia, the new film by Israeli documentarian Ohad Milstein, seem so far-reaching, so near-universal that one is almost tempted to dismiss them as little more than trite rhetoric – especially as it quickly transpires that Milstein’s chosen approach appears to be following the tried and true (dare one say clichéd?) mode of the family auto-portrait.
Monogamia introduces us to the director’s septuagenarian parents Avi and Rita who have been married for about half a century, and whose relationship has soured to a point where they are barely able or willing to hold a conversation with each other. Their lives, such as their son portrays it, is one of not-so-splendid isolation. Rita has retreated into a startlingly severe case of shopping addiction: the myriad closet spaces in the elder Milsteins’ house are littered with hats, jackets, shoes, shawls, and blouses that have never been worn. The proudly frugal Avi, meanwhile, spends his days poring over the shrinking household budget and coming up with creative new solutions for filing the spoils of his wife’s shopping sprees.
So far, so narratively eye-catching, so stylistically conventional, but Milstein isn’t done yet. There is also voiceover narration explaining his views on the situation – his anguish at seeing his parents in this state, his fears of waking up one day and realising that he’s become exactly like them – which is spoken not by the artist himself but by a young woman named May, who will later go on to serve as a stand-in for Rita after the defensive shopaholic retracts her agreement to appear in her son’s film, and then there’s Milstein’s own family tensions – most notably his Swiss-born wife Rahel’s late-night Tinder-swiping sessions, which open up a heartfelt conversation about monogamy-transcending strategies to keep the romantic spark alive.
From the self-effacing framing device to instructing his father to confront May-as-Rita with his pent-up frustration to seemingly “fixing” his parents’ relationship over the course of just a few short scenes, Milstein is all but openly flirting with fiction here – and in doing so he offers an intriguing exploration of the artifice that undergirds documentary filmmaking, almost through the backdoor. Monogamia’s main focus may lie in the meaning and feasibility of the titular phenomenon in the 21st century, and – judging by the raucous laughter it garnered at a packed Locarno Film Festival screening – its main audience draw may be its laconic elderly protagonists; but it is exactly this uneasy and uneven self-reflexivity that proves to be film’s greatest asset. Without May and her attempts at replacing Rita, without the ruminations on the suggestive power of the image (prompted by old photos of Avi and Rita), without the all too perfect storybook conclusion, Monogamia would run the risk of being just another in a long line of therapeutic documentarian family portraits that confuse intimacy for thematic heft.
However, thanks to this injection of a metafictional sensibility, the film becomes arrestingly unstable and, to an extent, surprisingly unreadable in its intentions – a welcome break with the rather clear-cut discussions and discourses it initially situates itself in. Take the role of May: introduced as a narrator reading out Milstein’s words – where he refers to himself as “he (meaning I)” – and later slotting into the role of the director’s mother, she finally reveals herself to be one of the missing ingredients in Ohad and Rahel’s own marriage. The troubling Freudian overtones in this climax are deafening yet they remain wholly unacknowledged amidst the film’s salvo of neat resolutions. While it would be easy to chalk up this apparent gap to sloppy craftsmanship or storytelling on the part of the documentarian, it may also hint at a more fundamental engagement with the limits of the format Milstein is appropriating here.
After all, when Rita drops out, he is adamant that he “can’t just stop the film,” hinting perhaps at cinema’s long-standing and maybe even intrinsic obsession with bending reality to the logic of a three-act structure. To be sure, to claim that everything after Rita’s retreat from the camera’s gaze must be treated as fiction would go too far, not least because she does eventually return, ostensibly prompted by the shock of seeing May sit in her place. But even so, Monogamia is pervaded by a distinct sense that the established rules of the documentary have been irreparably broken, leaving the audience to continuously grapple with the (ir)reality unfolding on screen – and inviting it to reassess its willingness to accept the genre’s conventional promises of truthfulness.
Ohad Milstein in Locarno (2023)
Monogamia | Film | Ohad Milstein | ISR 2023 | 73’ | Locarno Film Festival 2023, Semaine de la critique
First published: August 12, 2023