“A carefully structured study of a marginalized, forgotten woman, who appears both as singularly, heartbreakingly herself and as a symbol for all forgotten people.”
Canadian Heather Young came to the 44th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) from Halifax in true, almost cliché Canadian fashion. When she appeared on stage to introduce her feature film debut, Murmur, to its first audience, she seemed humble, grateful to have been selected for the Discovery section, happy just to be there and somewhat incredulous at having her film premiere at one of the world’s most prestigious and most attended cinema events. A film with no stars, shot on a tiny budget in Nova Scotia, Murmur presents itself in a similar modest fashion: understated, plain, perhaps even a bit… beige! But within minutes of the opening scene, it becomes very clear that the only “beige” thing in this film are the walls of the various locations and that, despite her unassuming presence, Young is an assured new filmmaker with a unique cinematic voice to contend with.
In discreet, yet precise strokes, Young draws the portrait of an isolated, aging woman, Donna (stunningly natural newcomer Shan MacDonald), grappling with her addictive personality. After a DUI forces her into community service, she begins volunteering at an animal shelter where she finds an outlet for her desperate need for attention and affection. Shooting her film in an almost perfectly square aspect ratio, a reminder of the various dog cages of the shelter, the director frames Donna almost systematically to the side, dividing her images into one-third/two-thirds, either horizontally or vertically. This serves to surround Donna with empty, neutral, often uninteresting space walls, doors, ceilings, ventilation ducts as she talks to various “important” people – the vet who handles her community service, her doctor, her psychologist – who remain off-screen or, worse, somewhere else altogether like her daughter’s roommate, who speaks to her only through a buzzer, and the daughter herself, who steadfastly refuses any form of contact with her mother. By confining Donna to what soon becomes a claustrophobic box and by using static camerawork and framing, the director exacerbates her character’s loneliness and isolation. The film reveals that its very “beigeness” is absolutely deliberate, used to accentuate Donna’s simple, working-class environment, but also as a neutral background – both concretely and figuratively – to highlight the character’s personality. Indeed, Donna may inhabit and move about in beige surroundings but, with her heavily patterned tops, her bold hairdo and carefully coiffed curls, she is anything but beige, even though no one seems to notice it.
In doing this, Young highlights the paradox of high-functioning addictive personalities, where the mind may be in turmoil, but the outer, physical space is controlled. Despite her alcoholism, Donna takes good care of herself -she likes a good manicure, she lovingly chooses her jewelry – and her apartment .Young films her meticulously vacuuming her rugs, cleaning her ventilation ducts, washing her dishes, even gaining control of her urges and embracing sobriety. So, when she starts bringing animals home from the shelter, the director has set the scene for us to appreciate how her overflowing compassion slowly, methodically brings about her unraveling, filling that neutral screen space with chaotic movement -the animals – and over spilling objects food scraps, cages, papers, trash – all the things she brings into her home for her animals and no longer takes the time to put away properly after using them. Despite herself, despite her best intentions, sober Donna cannot seem to help destroying her carefully well-kept home and, eventually, her life.
Young makes it clear that the connection Donna shares with the animals is visceral for her. This is a woman with too much love to give, who doesn’t know how to give it or when to stop. She finds kindred spirits in these imperfect old dogs and abandoned cats that are waiting to be put down, even though they can still provide so much affection and companionship. Though Young shows much empathy for both the animals and the human being who tries to care for them, her film is resolutely built from the point of view of Donna, who appears in practically every single shot. This is her story and the filmmaker is there to listen to her, even though no one else in the film seems to be paying any mind to her very real distress. Donna goes through certain motions that satisfy other people’s need to bring her back to a mode of “normal,” socially acceptable behavior and, to illustrate this, Young either follows her to her various therapies or films repetitive movements of her routine, like the centrifugal spin of the mop being drained. But no one truly pays attention to what hides behind her words or her resigned behavior – except for Young, who is there to catch all of Donna’s little joys and great sadness, staying close to her, filming her in close-up or medium shots, or observing her from awkward angles, including from the floor where her animals live.
Ultimately, Young crafts a carefully structured study of a marginalized, forgotten woman, who appears both as singularly, heartbreakingly herself and as a symbol for all forgotten people. Her film’s deeply affecting impact creeps up on you and, when you leave the theatre, its strikingly stark visual composition and profoundly humanist tone stay with you. With humor, compassion and not an ounce of sentimentality, Murmur is impressive minimalist storytelling at its best.
© FIPRESCI 2019
Edited by Rita Di Santo