The Father (Florian Zeller, 2020)

Anthony is an 80-year-old Welshman who is frequently visited by Anne, his daughter. Anne questions if he is capable of living in his flat – especially after displaying an abrasive attitude with a recent caretaker. Anthony insists that he doesn’t need help, although with his surroundings inexplicably changing right before his very eyes, Anne finds herself at wit’s end.

It doesn’t take long before you realize that things are not quite as they seem in this film. Anthony insists that he doesn’t need a caretaker, yet sometime after the first scene, he is in utter bewilderment when an unknown man is sitting in his room. To make things stranger, the man insists that the flat belongs to him – not Anthony. After arguing with him for a bit, Anne returns to the flat – now played by a completely different actress.

Yes, the central premise of The Father is that Anthony, named after the actor portraying him, Anthony Hopkins, is suffering from severe dementia – all but stated to be Alzheimer’s disease. Many films such as Jonathan Levine’s 50/50 or Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes featured important characters afflicted with the disease. It became increasingly especially common in the early twenty-first century when studies had been conducted about the disease, and its effects consequently became more well-known. However, what The Father does is quite different from any of those films; it showcases the decay of one’s mind through the viewpoint of the afflicted.

What makes The Father stand out is that it simulates the effects of dementia to such an astonishingly effective degree, you will feel just as confused as Anthony himself. The scenes are presented in a deliberately confusing anachronistic order. To wit, it’s implied that Anthony’s attitude causes the caretaker to leave in frustration, yet in a later scene, she is ready to start her first day. Then, there is the fact that certain details change without explanation; pictures randomly disappear and reappear, Anne is supposedly divorced only for her husband to appear, and they may or may not intend to move to France. And this isn’t even mentioning the fact that multiple actors and actresses portray the same exact people. His condition has progressed to such an extent that he can’t even recognize his own daughter or anyone else he sees every day.

Part of what sells the narrative is the casting choice of its central figure. Anthony Hopkins is a great pick when you consider his more famous roles. Whether he was Hannibal Lecter or Odin, you could count on the characters portrayed by Anthony Hopkins to be in complete control of their situations. The actor gives a very similar performance in this film, but instead of coming across as empowering, it only accents his extremely tenuous grip on reality. He insists he doesn’t need help and everything is fine – even though he doesn’t remember that Anne’s sister, Lucy, has been dead for years or even what any of his family members look like. He is even utterly powerless to stop Anne’s husband from striking him, although it is left deliberately vague as to whether or not this event actually occurred.

As a character, Anthony makes for quite an interesting study. He is established to be an abrasive man – particularly in how he treats Anne. He has no qualms admitting that he prefers Lucy over Anne, frequently demanding to see her. Anthony also tends to assume the absolute worst of everyone, believing them to be conspiring against him or otherwise attempting to drive him insane. However, these negative traits are almost certainly the result of his dementia. It’s entirely possible he was a more amiable figure in the past, but because whatever lucidity he may have possessed is long gone, his negative traits are magnified. Because of this, it’s impossible not to feel sympathy for the man.

Anne pointedly never outright says what happened to Lucy because Anthony would feel the heartache of loss again. In fact, this is a real thing people go through when someone close to a person with Alzheimer’s disease dies; the surviving family members find themselves avoiding the subject because it would cause the afflicted to suffer immense grief for the first time again.

In the end, Anne realizes Anthony is too far gone and commits him to a facility. The way this is presented is consistent with how the rest of the story was told. Anthony has a dream about Lucy only to wake up in a nursing home. It turns out Anne moved to Paris long ago with her husband. The man and woman who temporarily portrayed other characters in Anthony’s life were hospital workers all along. Now, his sanity has deteriorated so much that he doesn’t know his own name and desperately wants his mother to make everything better.

This underscores just how tragic the plight of anyone suffering from the disease truly is. This is a man who has had so much life experience, but the degradation of his own mind took that all away. It’s a form of death that leaves its victim alive. Everything that made them what they are disappears into nothingness, leaving behind a vague construct with only a scattered few memories to cling onto – and even those slip away.

It’s intriguing because if any other story was told in a similar fashion as The Father without the internal justification of being a manifestation of its protagonist’s dementia, it would be deservedly criticized for its bad storytelling. Therefore, I find the real triumph in Florian Zeller’s debut effort is how he manages to go so far against the grain of what typically constitutes good storytelling and crafts a masterful narrative out of these counterintuitive choices.

In some respect, The Father manages to be a spiritual successor to Michael Haneke’s Amour. Both are arthouse films that cast well-known veteran actors in the lead role, dealing with problems often occurring in one’s twilight years. The two films are also similar in that they make for incredibly difficult watches. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself only capable of watching this film once. You have to be in the right kind of mood to get anything out of The Father, for it cannot be watched recreationally. In fact, it’s very difficult to recommend to anyone who has ever experienced a loved one suffer from dementia because the way the narrative simulates the effects of Alzheimer’s disease is scarily accurate. It’s a tough sell to anyone who has been in that situation, but if you can stick with it, your efforts will not go unrewarded.

Final Score: 7/10

7 thoughts on “The Father (Florian Zeller, 2020)

  1. Saw this the other day and was truly impressed by this directorial debut. I even saw that his next movie is titled The Son. I see a pattern. 🙂 You definitely covered all the points I would’ve noted for this movie. I actually found it quite nice that they used Hopkins name and date of birth in the movie. For some reason, it just makes it even scarier, especially knowing how old Anthony Hopkins is today. 😦 Great thoughts on this Oscar-nominee.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! And yeah, it was definitely a solid debut, alright. In fact, I’ve noticed that a lot of directors from this year’s lineup are newcomers. Even Aaron Sorkin, who made a name for himself long before the 2010s, only recently started directing with The Trial of the Chicago 7 being his second film (Molly’s Game was his first).

      I remember being thrown for a loop when I realized they named the character after Anthony Hopkins – even going as far as using his real birthday. Pretty impressive that this many decades in, he can still turn in a dynamite performance. isn’t it?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Another one I should see. I’ve always liked Anthony Hopkins, and I saw some small parts of The Crown and thought Olivia Colman was great in that role just from what I watched. The subject is interesting as well. You’re right that a story told in this way would be considered a mess if it didn’t fit into the theme — I listened to an album series a while back, Everywhere at the End of Time, that does something similar with music to depict dementia and I thought it was really effective at that, and I’m not the type to sit down and listen to experimental noise sort of stuff usually. Same for a film; I like weird disjointed storytelling as long as there’s a purpose and it fits the theme, and it sounds like this is that kind of movie.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I admittedly haven’t seen that many of Anthony Hopkins’s performances, but I cannot deny he’s a tour de force. Olivia Colman is great as well in this film, though The Crown certainly sounds interesting from what you’re saying. Usually, I find this kind of storytelling is a bit lazy because a lot of intermediate artists will use gimmicks like this to make up for their shortcomings, but I didn’t get that sense from this film; it’s very disjointed, yet purposely so and it’s meticulously crafted on top of that.

      I never heard of Everywhere at the End of Time until you mentioned it, but it certainly seems like quite the ambitious project. I myself find that noise usually works better as a complement to another music style than it does the main feature with Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth, and My Bloody Valentine being especially standout examples (indeed, Psychic… Powerless…, Daydream Nation, and Loveless stand out as some of my all-time favorite albums).

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s good to hear this film gets this style right; it definitely can be used in a lazy way. I think some artists want to go for a weird avant-garde thing but aren’t talented enough to make it work.

        I was surprised by The Crown. I haven’t seen that much of it, but what I have seen was interesting, and I never took much interest in the Windsor family before. A lot of it is family drama, but there’s some politics mixed in as well. The only questionable thing in it I’ve seen is the show’s treatment of the Kennedys, but then I don’t know enough about the history to say how much that part might have been dramatized.

        And yeah, I agree with you generally about noise as it’s used in music. Those guys all did use it really well in their best work, and I’m not a fan of pure noise. I think Everywhere works because of its strong concept, but this sort of thing probably wouldn’t work 99% of the time otherwise.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Out of the nominees, this is among the best all around, since it is a movie without a clear flaw. At least as far as I am concerned.

    I think it edges the other best all around movies because of the very original premise and emotional impact.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can definitely agree that it’s the least flawed of the eight films. I’m still not entirely sure how I’m going to order the films, but this one will probably rank pretty high. It certainly has the ability to leave quite the emotional impact for those willing to let it.

      Liked by 1 person

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