Traces of a Memory: "The Idea of a Lake"

in 69th Locarno International Film Festival

by Andreas Scheiner

Five years after she won the Golden Leopard in Locarno for the family portrait Back to Stay (Abrir puertas y ventanas), Swiss-Argentine director Milagros Mumenthaler made a strong return to the fest with her sophomore feature The Idea of a Lake (La Idea De Un Lago), bowing again in the main “Concorso internationale”. This time, however, Mumenthaler left Locarno empty-handed, but the subtle drama – too subtle it seems for a jury faced with a competition comprised of mostly loud and sensation-seeking works – should nevertheless enjoy further festival exposure in the coming months.

Not referring to the picturesque Lago Maggiore, at whose northern tip the Swiss festival takes place, but to an equally scenic strech of water outside of Buenos Aires, the film tells the story of Ines (Carla Crespo), an Argentine photographer in her thirties, who is pregnant and cannot let go of her childhood memories of spending the family holidays at the titular lake.

Mumenthaler skillfully unfolds the picture’s underlying conflict right in the opening scene, in which Ines is seen making two phone calls: First she talks to the man who seems to be the father of her unborn child, then, in a second call, Ines sets an appointment with the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team. Politics and parenting, we conclude, are rather closely intertwined in this film inspired by Guadalupe Gaonas book Air Pocket (Pozo de aire). In her autobiographical writing, Gaona focuses on the absence of her father, a victim of the civilian-military dictatorship in Argentina, and as “Lake” further unravels we slowly start to realize that Ines also grew up without a father, and that he might have fallen into the hands of the government during the “Dirty War” in 1977 as well.

Unlike her mother, who never stopped believing in her husband being alive and showing up at her doorstep one day, Ines finally wants confirmation of his death. Trying to come to terms with the past and being a professional photographer, Ines starts working on a photo book about her childhood, and that further evokes vivid memories from back in the day.

Writer-director Mumenthaler shows the past in a series of entensive flashback sequences that make up about half of the feature. With characteristics of magic realism and given a beautiful washed out Seventies feel by German Cinematographer Gabriel Sandru (Koepek), these flashbacks leave their mark on the film. Particularly two sequences stand out. The first daydream shows little Ines (Malena Moiron) fantasizing about the family’s parrot-green Renault 4 joining her for a swim in the lake. Like Herbie, The Love Bug’s French relative the Renault is drifting in the water and winking with its headlights and its windscreen wipers while Neil Diamond’s Song Sung Blue plays over the scene. The other sequence is about a game of hide and seek with flashlights in a forest in the night – it is not only visually striking but also works perfectly well as a metaphor in this moving and intimate film about a woman searching in the dark of her past.

Edited by Amber Wilkinson