The Wait is the first feature by Piero Messina, best known as Paolo Sorrentino’s assistant director on the lavish (and lavishly praised) The Great Beauty. Drawing on the Italian affluence that provided both setting and subject of Sorrentino’s film, The Wait unfolds in an opulent country villa in Messina’s native Sicily, where the recently bereaved Anna (Juliette Binoche) receives a visit from her son’s girlfriend Jeanne (Lou de Laâge). Over the course of Easter, the women await the arrival of the absent son, Giuseppe. You will be forgiven if this précis calls up memories of Binoche pitted against Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria’s claustrophobic Swiss Alps retreat, or perhaps reminds you of her wandering through a Tuscan village alongside William Shimell in Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy. In either case, you might want to rein in your expectations.
While The Wait doesn’t live up to the quality of the films mentioned above, it does successfully channel Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty in its reliance on visually decadent set pieces. These are often striking to look at, and occasionally serve Messina’s expressionistic ends. The minimally furnished but richly textured interiors of Anna’s villa, as well as its sparsely vegetated surrounds, create a vision of wealth that is simultaneously harsh and austere. Moreover, Messina’s conception of Anna’s all-consuming, almost gratuitous grief is elaborated in tableaus like the opening study of the bloodied body of a Christ icon, and in images of the baroque rites of the village Easter pageant. Many of the stylised scenes are, however, superfluous with respect to narrative and character. While this would not present a problem in and of itself, they also tend to be overwrought and loud in a manner that sits uncomfortably within the rest of the film. In Messina’s hands, these extravagant sequences possess none of the humour or absurdity that was so critical to the success of The Great Beauty. The Wait is, by contrast, earnest to a fault, and the film labours under the weight of a heavy symbolism. It recreates the biblical story of Easter, with Anna standing in for the figure of Mary—grieving mother of Christ—who awaits the return or resurrection of her son.
The Wait also fails to take full advantage of the possibilities of suspense afforded by its intriguing premise. While Messina flirts with certain conventions and potentialities of the psychological thriller, he does not maintain enough ambiguity about Giuseppe’s absence to generate any persistent tension. The twists and turns of the plot emerge mostly as strange misfires, with the exception of one vertiginous moment in the final act, where the viewer is suddenly made to suspect that they might have misread the film’s intentions entirely. This sensation is only very fleeting, however, and comes far too late.
What does emerge with some clarity from the confused intentions of The Wait is the film’s preoccupation with grief. Anna’s wait stands in for the process of mourning. She is not so much waiting for the arrival of a loved one, but rather for their departure. It is a wait for the realisation that this person is irreparably gone; a wait for the time she no longer expects to see them in the old places. Despite Messina’s apparent preference for visual spectacle, his film is at its best in quieter moments of interaction between Anna and Jeanne. Lou de Laâge was much feted in 2014 for her performance as the young Sarah in Mélanie Laurent’s Breathe, and brings a similarly radiant beauty and sexuality to her role as Jeanne. Binoche is equally if differently disarming, imbuing Anna with a sense of knowing sophistication and life experience that provides a necessary counterpoint to the youthful exuberance of Jeanne. Their developing intimacy is captivating, as they begin a relationship based around the absent son and lover that has brought them together. Unfortunately, these moments of connection between the women are both too limited and too infrequent to carry the film.
When such naturalistic exchanges are set alongside the more expressionistic sequences, it becomes apparent that The Wait operates in two vastly different registers, giving rise to a stylistic dissonance that makes for uncomfortable viewing. In a scene that instantiates this strange combination of the genuine and genuinely artificial, Anna and Jeanne share a extravagant home-cooked meal with two young men they meet at the lake. After dinner, Jeanne begins to dance with one of the men. As in many of Messina’s highly expressionistic scenes, the music they hear seems to transcend the diesis and become all-consuming. When Anna enters she is struck dumb by the youthful vitality and sexuality on display. It forces her to mourn afresh for the son who can never live out such possibilities. While it is thus a moment of real feeling—Anna’s grief is private and moving—the display that elicits it is excessive to the point of awkwardness.
Although The Wait suffers from its director’s overindulgence, the film is never for a moment dull. And to Messina’s credit, he does manage to hold back in the final moments between the two women—there is realisation and understanding, but there is no confrontation, and the film is better for it. If Messina can exercise more of this kind of restraint in his work, he’s likely to emerge as a very compelling filmmaker.