On Remember to Blink
Lost in translation: a psychological battleground concerning motherhood and a clash of different cultures
After two award-winning short films, The Etude (Etiduas, 2013) and The Bridges (Tiltai, 2015), Remember to Blink is Austėja Urbaitė’s powerful feature film debut. Its original title, Per Arti (literally “Too close”), expresses even better the style and theme of this claustrophobic study in cinematic form on the obsession with control over others, on motherhood and jealousy, behind the reiterated shadow of love for children. This is an all-female confrontation between the director and her talented protagonist-actresses, in a cultural intertwining with disturbing implications.
Remember to Blink is a psychodrama that begins idyllically. A couple in love, Jacqueline (Anne Azoulay) and Leon (Arthur Igual), in the pleasant landscape of the French countryside, immersed alone in a seemingly Edenic nature, are waiting to receive two Lithuanian siblings they have adopted, a girl and a boy, after their mother abandoned them and they spent a traumatic time in an orphanage. The older sister, Karolina (Inesa Sionova), is already in need of sleeping pills and the little brother, Rytis (Ajus Antanavičius), has evidently been bullied. The couple would have preferred to have only one child, but this was not possible due to the rules of international adoption.
First comes Gabi (Dovilė Kundrotaitė), a Lithuanian university student in France, hired as a language facilitator to bridge the cultural transition of the two children and make it less traumatic, helping them to communicate their needs for the first few weeks. Soon, however, the differences in temperament and educational methods ignite a conflict, first underground, then explosive, between the two women; Leon is crushed between these female figures and the condescension towards the children, unable to mediate.
Gabi is naturally affectionate and plays on an equal footing with the children, who bond with her deeply, also because of the language they share. Jacqueline increasingly detests having to rely on her to make herself understood; she tends to control everything, pushes for stricter discipline. To get the children to better assimilate French culture and prepare them for school, she even changes their names, to Caroline and Romain, in honour of the writer Romain Gary and his Lithuanian origins. Jacqueline’s nervousness increases with every day, and she fails to dominate the situation. She secretly carries inside her own trauma of a loss, that of her son Sebastian, whom she had at sixteen and who abandoned her. The open space of the house in the woods becomes claustrophobic in the light of the impossible coexistence.
Remember to Blink is a very subtle psychological tale, about possession and envy, through an adoption story told through the lens of two languages and two women. What makes the drama particularly original is precisely the setting in nature, ever greater, ever stronger than human smallness. Great emotions flare up in the hearts of the characters, like a fire that can be glimpsed burning the woods. Even in nature there is an incessant struggle for affirmation: Urbaitė builds some memorable short visual inserts on this theme.
The microcosm of the five protagonists, separated from the rest of the world, is a precise narrative strategy to focus the story not only in the unity of place and action, but also to restrict the protagonists to themselves, their conflicts, their desires, their fears, without any comparison with the outside world.
Some precise symbols are fascinatingly scattered throughout the film. In the apparently Edenic nature in which the story is set, slithering snakes often peep out, underlining the biblical meaning of a garden of paradise that turns into hell. Another recurring motif is that of the Gorgon (to which the snake is connected). In the mythological tale, the most famous is Medusa, a beautiful woman transformed into a petrifying monster after being desired and raped by Poseidon. A story, therefore, of suffering, like the one hidden by Jacqueline about her lost son. But that of the Gorgon is an older ancestral myth, the great goddess of snakes who indicated the prohibition to enter a place, channelling fear into the horrid face of the Gorgon, which petrified the unwary who dared to approach spaces that were to remain secret: a kind of deity of the threshold, the personification of the encounter, or clash, between the human being and the unknown nature; being petrified when crossing a territory that makes you lose yourself. In this sense, the director admirably merges the continuity between two cultures, pagan and Christian, creating a disturbing atmosphere of menace in the sunny staging of Remember to Blink and in its hidden traumas.
Jacqueline becomes jealous of the younger Gabi, who is marking her territory and, in her view, taking what is hers: the affection of the children. But the depth with which Austėja Urbaitė builds her character and how Anne Azoulay shapes it, means that she is not simply an evil stepmother, because inside she holds a pain that tears and stiffens her, a first failure as a mother that makes her permanently prone to a nervous breakdown. All the more so, as Gabi herself, with the same intention of protecting children, goes ever more incorrectly beyond her duties, creating a bitter struggle for authority between two differently manipulative women with unresolved aspirations for motherhood. Between the two protagonists, the authentic gaze of the children – from laughing eyes when playing in nature to the desperation and a feeling far from any affection, uprooted and abandoned in their sincere need to simply be loved.
Roots is, then, the first and foremost theme of Remember to Blink, which begins as a clash of cultures. At the beginning of the film, Jacqueline and Leon point out the mistakes in Gabi’s still uncertain French. When the latter asks them why they had chosen to adopt two Lithuanian children, Jacqueline replies that her grandmother was Russian, therefore, practically, for her, the same thing. With regard to the children, then, we start from the little things, such as the way to teach French, whether or not to start from Lithuanian, up to the prohibition of the use of their mother tongue and the French rendering of names as a denial of their past identity. Remember to Blink progressively questions us about how wealthy and cultured Western Europeans talk about cultural diversity, but then lead the children to a forced assimilation. In this sense, the film tells in its own way an original form of neo-colonialism within a small family nucleus. And it raises the thorny question of whether adults have the right to shape and change the identity of a child who has no other way, in the end, but to obey.
The contribution to the film of the two leading actresses, truly extreme poles of Remember to Blink, is fundamental, as they are naturalistically immersed in their roles. Anne Azoulay did not understand Lithuanian, so on the set, she really did not understand the children and Gabi (Kundrotaitė) was her only linguistic link with them. In turn, Dovilė Kundrotaitė herself struggled to find words in broken French that she tried to study for the shooting of the film.
An important part of the narration is the luminous cinematography by Julius Sičiūas, which envelops all the scenes in perfect symbiosis with the intimate style of Austėja Urbaitė’s direction, made up of frequent close-ups and small details on the inner movements of the protagonists, in an idyllic nature that highlights, by contrast, the family environment full of tensions and creeping unease.
Edited by Birgit Beumers
© FIPRESCI 2023