Sweden, 2016, 76 mins
During a Latvian spa break, a mother and daughter spend time together alone for the very first time. The daughter is struck by how little they have to say to each other, how they are locked into separate worlds. Their exchanges consist mostly of the mother photographing the daughter in various poses, a common occurrence throughout the daughter’s life: She and her two sisters frequently sat for their mother and feature in many of her artistic productions. Following the silent spa break, the daughter, director Sara Broos, decided to make a documentary to get closer to her mum, the renowned Swedish painter, Karin Broos.
The film, Broos’ third feature-length documentary, comprises snippets from the director’s childhood, present-day interviews and family tableaux. It also features pictures and cuttings from the mother’s wild teenage years in Malmö in the ‘60s, a time when she experimented with drugs, suffered eating disorders and ‘sought male approval.’ Broos explains how she, as a child, would write letters to her mother’s paintings in a bid to understand why they were so unhappy. A documentary is, to a certain extent, comparable to a letter; both are created at a specific time and reach their recipients after a time leap which brings distance, but also room for contemplation.
In her documentary For You Naked (2012), Broos follows her godfather Lars Lerin in his attempt to find love with a Brazilian he met through a personals ad. Lerin, a renowned Swedish artist most noted for his water colour paintings, is besieged by social anxiety and an alcoholic past. However, in For You Naked, the director’s sole purpose is to offer encouraging support as the godfather battles his own thoughts and struggles to connect emotionally. There are some thematic similarities between these two films and the short documentary Homeland (2015) – about a female Syrian refugee’s passionate love for music. All three feature main characters who turn their gaze inwards to comprehend and cope with their lives.
At 17, Karin Broos wrote in her diary: “I am unable to do anything. I am lying in my bed waiting. For what – I don’t know. And then I eat. The whole room is empty, and so am I. […] And then this bloody body which is impossible to get rid of. It follows me everywhere.” From age 15 to 22, Karin lived through constant hell. Her daughter Sara also suffered from anorexia and bulimia as a teenager, which the mother failed to realise due to their differing lifestyles. Where the mother was extroverted and experimental, the daughter became introverted and brooding. Both, however, experienced self-loathing, shame and a negative perception of their identities. The daughter’s view of her mother reveals great admiration, coupled with a wish for a greater degree of symbiosis than the mother is able to extend.
Reflections bears closer resemblance to a picturesque self-portrait than a traditional documentary, or rather the director’s stylised attempt to understand herself. From a young age, Broos tried to emulate her mother by wearing bright red lipstick and black eyeliner. Some of the mother’s other characteristics also manifest themselves in the daughter, such as low self-confidence and a talent for expressing herself visually.
The mother’s love is most evident as she focuses on recreating her daughters in her paintings
The style and tone of the film are heavily stylised, with colour-drenched images, striking compositions, a gliding lyrical editing, and a rich, often intrusive soundtrack consisting of slow ‘60s rock music dominated by a weeping electric guitar. The use of music, sensual close-ups and sumptuous colours create a ‘rock star’ filter effect, akin to atmospheric filmmakers such as David Lynch or Terrence Malick. One might suspect that the director has allowed the aesthetics of the mother’s colourful past and detail-rich paintings to seep into the documentary, thus increasing the sense of being present in a movable family history museum.
Värmland. Large swathes of the material were filmed in Värmland, Karin Broos’ new home when she got together with her husband. The stately home and beautiful nature would not look out of place in a Bergman-drama, a parallel also visible in thematic threads such as communication breakdown and painful, unbalanced family relationships. A scene I will remember for a long time is the meditative labour of a robotic timber cutter. With inhuman precision, one tall tree after another is cut loose, stripped of branches and divided into smaller parts. With unnatural speed, a generation of growth is transformed into a useful end product. Only the bleeding stumps of a stripped forest remain.
Judging by the rich archive of childhood clippings, the Broos family were zealous in documenting each other. The entire family seem most at ease when gazing at each other through artistic media such as film, photos or paintings. A questions which permeates the film is whether mother and daughter are ever able to communicate without the pretext of artistic intention. The three sisters seem demonstratively unfazed by the camera, consciously unattractive as they defiantly and unsmiling stare into the lens with their striking features and strong-willed lips. The mother’s love is most evident as she focuses on recreating her daughters in her paintings. This assumption is strengthened by her declaration that she is at her happiest when she paints, when time and place disappear. This is easy to appreciate; an artistic trance is a very effective means of soothing a traumatised state of mind.
Staging of the self. Is it self-preservation to allow oneself to be objectified, to objectify oneself? Is self-loathing easier to bear if you allow observers in? Broos turns her camera in every direction, with kaleidoscopic results. But as the camera edges nearer to her and her mother, the distance becomes clearer. As a youth, Broos decided not to become like her mother; she wanted to stop seeing herself through others. However, the opposite seems to have happened. As she too must have realised, this documentary completes the staging of the self which began with her mother.
The aesthetical handling occasionally proves a distraction, as all the females of the family are incredibly beautiful. Picture perfect teenage girls suffering eating disorders and self-mutilation is a frequently occurring cliché in music videos and female blogs. However, Broos’ project about delving into her family mythology seems sincere rather than coquettish. The film’s shocking beauty contributes to an enjoyable experience enabling existentialist questions on identity, the need for expression and substitutions for basic intimacy.
The pond. In one of the film’s more memorable moments, the director steps into a murky pond all the way to her neck. She waits a few minutes before fully submerging herself. The frame lingers for some time, but cuts away before her head reappears from the water. Then, as the credits near the end, she shoots out of the water and gracefully gasps for air. The small girl deep inside me held her breath all through the film, and was only able to relax once the director emerged from the water. This image invokes the sensation of drowning in one’s own critical gaze, to be denied the fresh air necessary to move on, unhindered by oneself.