A promising debut from Finnish film director Tia Kouvo hits the right notes as a tragicomic Christmas gathering reveals long-kept secrets at the 6th Brussels International Film Festival.
Three generations of a family have an uneasy gathering for the Christmas holidays in Finnish comedy Family Time (Mummola) by a debutant director Tia Kouvo. She shows her surehandedness from the beginning of the film when the key players are introduced off-frame. We get to see the arrival of Christmas guests as they enter the door of grandmother Eila’s home just as they would enter the stage of a theatre. The filmmaker repeats her ruse near the end of the film as one of the key characters makes his exit similarly off-frame.
The grandmother Eila is played by Leena Uotila, a veteran of many film and TV dramas. Eila keeps on talking about things like the renovation of a department store in a town nearby. This reveals that she may be experiencing the onslaught of senility as the comments of Eila’s grown-up daughters tell us that if there was any renovation it must have been years ago. The shop Eila babbles about, is most likely from the past.
With grandfather Lasse (Tom Wentzel, also a veteran of radio, stage and cinema) things are not any better; his jokes have been heard hundreds of times before. When the daughters Susanna (Ria Kataja) and Helena (Elina Knihtilä) meet they clearly have not grown past their childhood bickering. In many ways this family is stuck in a situation from earlier, happier years. In the initial scenes, the characters keep on talking about how lovely it is to go shopping at Sokos department store or Prisma markets. This talk smacks of product placement. This is the only minor blemish in an otherwise complex family drama.
As the Christmas night’s dinner approaches, the stupor of grandfather Lasse deepens. With it, the granddaughter Hilla (Elli Paajanen) steps forward and announces it is time for Lasse to leave the festivities since he ruins the happy mood of everybody with his drinking. With everyone agreeing to this harsh-sounding banishment Lasse can only retire elsewhere in the abode of the grandparents. The character Hilla feels like an extension of the director Kouvo herself. When the unforgettable visit of Santa Claus seems to be over, Lasse makes his equally unforgettable return to the Christmas festivities. His stinking protest against his banishment is addressed to the members of the family, whom he sees hostile, and especially Hilla, who initiated throwing him from the family table.
To understand why the grandfather wants to stay drunk over the Christmas, one needs to know that the older generation of Finnish males may still be cherishing the idea of intoxication as the realm of male freedom. A younger male in the family, grandson Simo (Sakari Topi) takes an excursion outside of the family surroundings by making a night-time visit to a nearby petrol station where he meets a young woman working as cashier. They never get too deep into a conversation since Simo, despite his ability to speak, fails to communicate with her. The failure to communicate meaningfully is typical for the family described by the film. With his visit to the petrol station Simo drives around in circles on an empty parking lot, which visually captures the situation of just about everybody in the film.
There is more to grandfather Lasse than his addiction to alcohol. The filmmaker quite deftly evades blurting the truth about grandfather’s youth at sea. The quick visit of a lover from his youth, Seppo (Matti Onnismaa), is handled with delicacy that tells a little bit more than it should. That gives us the answer to grandfather Lasse’s concealed unhappiness. A life lived in a lie clearly is not a happy life. Supposedly there are other truths behind the UN reports of happiness index where Finland has repeatedly gained the top position. We can conclude from her debut that Kouvo should have a fairly bright future ahead of her.
Edited by Amber Wilkinson
© FIPRESCI 2023