Une vie démente (Madly in Life, Belgium 2020)

Alex and Néomie face one of many agencies concerned about Suzanne’s behaviour – but she’s busy eating sweets

Une vie démente is a francophone film and the first feature of a filmmaking couple, Raphaël Balboni and Ann Sirot based in Brussels. It follows several short films and contributions to portmanteau films. The film has an English language title which I don’t think is helpful. The Belgian title is more to the point – this is a film about understanding and learning to live with a form of dementia. It is promoted as a comedy-drama but I think that probably depends on the individual and what they have experienced  about dealing with dementia sufferers. It is, I think, an intelligent, human and very worthwhile film which uses elements of humour very well. I’m aware that there is a particularly Belgian form of humour and that may be evident here.

I’m certainly not an expert on dementia but I am very aware of it. One of the most important points to take on board is that there are all kinds of degenerative diseases which might grouped under a general heading of dementia, but they do manifest themselves in different ways. In this film a couple in their early thirties, Alex and Noémie, gradually come to realise that Alex’s mother Suzanne is beginning to act strangely. It’s only a short film (under 90 minutes) so the narrative progresses quite quickly and soon Suzanne is no longer capable of looking after herself and is becoming a possible danger to others. It is particularly unfortunate for the couple because they are hoping to start a family and caring for Suzanne raises questions about whether they should go ahead at this time.

Suzanne in her garden trying to understand the robot mower’s movements

The condition from which Suzanne suffers is named as ‘semantic dementia’ which refers to the inability to connect words to specific meanings. I don’t know if what we see is a realistic depiction of ‘SD’ but it is significant that Suzanne has been in charge of a gallery or at least putting on art exhibitions. She has a beautiful and spacious house and garden and a collection of valuable art objects. Alex works in a the same business and Noémie is a secondary school art teacher. The directors have chosen to incorporate ideas about art and design into the film’s mise en scène, creating some effects which are initially subtle and eventually quite startling and amusing. Suzanne doesn’t lose her interest in art and is particularly interested in a little girl, the daughter of one of Alex and Néomie’s friends who is clearly creative.

The film’s mise en scène echoes Suzanne’s fascination with art and gradually becomes more emphatic

Suzanne’s behaviour creates bizarre social situations which are the basis of several possibly comic moments. Interactions with various officials and agencies are presented in an original way so we only see Suzanne sitting alongside Alex and Néomie as questions are asked (see top image). These scenes too are handled in relation to ideas about colour and design. It is Alex as Suzanne’s closest kin who is the source of most of the film’s emotional heft. He has to learn how to communicate and adapt to his mother’s condition and I did find this moving. There is no cure for SD so the ultimate aim must be to find a way of dealing with the condition and how it impacts on everyone. I think the film’s ending is sad but also uplifting. The critical response and the small group of IMDb ‘users’ appear to agree. The film has won recognition and prizes at various film festivals. The performances by the four principals are very good: Jo Deseure is Suzanne, Jean Le Peltier is Alex and Lucie Debay is Néomie. Gilles Remiche is the carer, Kevin, a potentially difficult role that I think is well-written and performed. The film looks very good with ‘Scope photography by Jorge Piquer Rodríguez. Music is also important in the film, as it is in the lives of many dementia sufferers since enjoyment and recall of music are often retained when other facilities are lost.

Suzanne is a woman who has family and a generous life style when we first meet her. We aren’t shown all the procedures necessary to put her financial affairs into order after she has lost control or interest in her affairs, but she owns art objects that are valuable. Of course many dementia suffers don’t have both support and resources and to that extent the film presents an idealised perspective on what such a diagnosis might mean. Even so I think writer-directors Balboni and Sirot are to be congratulated on a début film that entertains while presenting an insight into a condition that will be something more and more of us will encounter. I don’t know whether the film has yet achieved a wider international distribution beyond the francophone world but I hope it does.

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