In British avant-garde novelist B.S. Johnson’s 1971 novel about dementia and old age, House Mother Normal, the conversations, thoughts, views and inner worlds of a group of eight people in an old peoples’ home are vividly illustrated in unorthodox and striking ways. The ‘House Mother’ of the title – modelled on Johnson’s own – displays an increasing inability to communicate. The reader becomes aware of the advancing state of her dementia through the pace at which words disappear from her recollections and speech until, finally, only a word is seen here and there on the page.
When the blinds draw
Harald Hutter’s gentle film of two days in the life of his father, whose world is shrinking as he loses his sight, hearing and mind, Up The River With Acid, attempts to reach into life as the blinds are drawn down on it.
Composed of a series of painterly static-point views, Hutter’s camera explores the grand old country house where his father, Horst and mother, Franciney Prévost, are spending the summer. The house is in a state of genteel dilapidation; the torn wallpaper and patches of bare walls are less a work in progress than a lesson in neglect.
Horst, a German-born academic who met Franciney in Canada when their only common language was German (she’s French, but her English was still rudimentary), lived a full and intellectually curious life. There is still much love between them, even if Franciney needs to prompt Horst to remember the circumstances of their first meeting – when they walked along a river up to a waterfall and took acid, hence the beguiling title of this short documentary.
This is his life and one in which the fabric, the continuity, is coming apart.
The director is attentive but not intrusive. The opening sequences show his father enjoying a warm breeze blowing in over curtains at an open window, his eyes shut, and his face turned aloft to catch the gentle zephyr. A trapped swallow flutters around the room, a symbol of all that is being closed down within the elderly man. A small, blond boy sits at a messy old desk and draws with a pencil. The circle of life is here – what memories will that child have of these days when he is older? What memories does Horst have now of his long, productive life?
Anthony Hopkins rightly won acclaim for his portrayal of a man descending into dementia in The Father. Horst Hutter is not famous, nor an actor. This is his life and one in which the fabric, the continuity, is coming apart. He potters around the kitchen, taking cutlery from a drawer, then putting it back. He sits in a chair, looking into space. Sometimes he practices meditation and chanting, though it sounds like he has forgotten how to do it. He is alive and physically present but exists in a world largely inaccessible to others.
There are moments of lucidity: the gentle, almost unbearably fragile conversation with his wife in English where she prompts him to remember that first day when acquaintance stood at the door of love. His face lights up, and he does recall more than you would think. Her pain as her husband slowly slips from her grasp is momentarily assuaged. This is a film to watch with the heart fully open; tears and compassion are the likely response.
How to capture a life in two days? How to convey the passing of that life? How to stay focused when you are both a filmmaker and a son? The film begs more questions than it answers, but clues to the life lived are given in a series of old photographic images of the younger Horst and Franciney, family and friends. Eventually, this too shall pass, as a pile of 16mm stock burning into ashes suggests. As a tribute to one life, it is a paeon to all life.