To begin, there is an unavoidable element in Niclas Larsson’s debut picture Mother, Couch that feels progressively similar to Beau is Afraid. The particular reasons for this will have to be kept under wraps, although the two have an interest in psychiatric reflections on childhood trauma linked to a grandmother.
Whereas Ari Aster placed himself and Joaquin Phoenix on trial in that film, this one lacks any deeper analysis or self-reflection. Based on Jerker Virdborg’s novel Mamma i Soffa, it is a film that begins with a goofy feeling of uncertainty that is wonderful fun, only to slowly but steadily bury any nuance with a brutally handled narrative shovel.
Though handled effectively by Ewan McGregor, who takes on what should have been his most ambitiously abstract feature since 2005’s Stay, the film is continually searching for something more, which is made so clear that any vivid sensations fall through the fingers.
Whereas more daring directors are prepared to let ambiguity hang over you about what it all means, everything here is stripped of all nuance in order to have people and situations basically tell us what is going on in case we had any problem piecing it together for ourselves.
What begins as an almost mumblecore comedy with a humorous demeanour glances into a weird rabbit hole before pulling itself back. It suffocates any interest by continuously pounding home themes and concepts that could have benefited from a gentler approach.
The plot revolves around the unhappy David (McGregor), who discovers that his mother (Ellen Burstyn) will not leave a furniture store where she is seated on a couch. His brothers Gruffudd (Rhys Ifans) and Linda (Lara Flynn Boyle) appear generally neutral, though a little upset, about this, highlighting the wide disparities in their personalities.
David quickly becomes increasingly concerned as he rushes to his child’s birthday celebration, which his irritated wife, played by an underutilised Lake Bell, is having to run without him. Despite this, he is unable to persuade the matriarch to get off the couch. The strange thing is that David appears to be dressed for a funeral, and despite the humour weaved throughout the film, he is deathly serious about practically everything.
His perplexity is further by the young furniture shop manager Bella, portrayed by Taylor Russell in a superb off-key performance that the film curiously overlooks, who just appears to want to talk about some of their pasts with them. When David is unable to convince his mother to leave, they decide to let her spend the night at the staged furniture store, and he will also sleep there.
Any further exposition of the narrative should end there, as there is a sense of discovery to be preserved. This spans from the significance of a key David receives from his mother that is intended to unlock something in her home to the fact that the location where they are spending the night is beginning to alter. Without revealing what has been changed, every aspect of the altering production design becomes critical to comprehending what is gradually taking hold of the picture.
Though Mother, Couch is still very much its own thing if in a less intriguing way, the picture also recalls parts of Charlie Kaufman’s work, notably the recent I’m Thinking of Ending Things. In some ways, this is more generally humorous, with the brothers’ and their mother’s arguing at first seeming pretty foolish.
The more it delves into the reasons why everyone is behaving this way rather than the specific what is going on, the connecting tissue between these other works begins to grow. What we begin to witness are little glimpses of David’s concerns and anxieties, all of which are directly related to his relationship with his mother. Though Burstyn is great at bringing this to life in the few seconds she has, the text doesn’t make the same impression.
The yearning for stability in David’s own family and connection with his siblings who appear to be planets apart are all more important than what happens at the furniture company. Even when F. Murray Abraham appears as Bella’s father to provide some disruption, it’s all for Larsson’s interest in the internal. There is a sense that he is unearthing more buried sorrows that David himself does not completely comprehend, but the picture refuses to remain in that emotional ambiguity.
Some of the most enduring masterpieces are those that leap headfirst into the intimate. Mother, Couch, on the other hand, clings to comprehensibility so tightly that any potentially broad moments are undermined. Even when there is an ideal ending point that would have left us a little more befuddled, the film continues and provides explanations that the experience would have benefitted from not providing.
This isn’t to suggest the entire film is a snoozer, especially because the performances are all excellent. The problem is that we come to comprehend practically everything to the point that there is nothing to ponder on once it is over. It’s a one-and-done experience that leaves you wishing they’d simply bought the darn sofa so they could ship themselves over to a more ambitious picture along with it.
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