For me, the most potent musical moment this Sydney Film Festival came courtesy of Georgian-German filmmaking pair Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß.1 At a school reunion on the outskirts of Tiblisi, the attendees — all in their early 50s — have worked their way through speeches and gossip and one among them, a gregarious burly man, requests a tune. A guitar is procured, a chair is placed in the centre of the room, and Manana (stage actress Ia Shugliashvili) is pushed to perform despite her protests. “You used to be my rose,” she sings, tears barely dry on her cheeks, “but now you are my grief.” The lyrics might be a touch on the nose, but Shugliashvili’s performance is so arresting. The inscrutability that has come to define Manana for the preceding hour threatens to slip away in front of a crowd, but she keeps her eyes down, her fingers moving with technical precision, her voice melodic yet emotionless.
It should come as no surprise that Nana & Simon (as they are billed here) can knock the air out of you with a musical sequence. Their first feature as a directorial duo, In Bloom (2013), features a circling long-take of a young woman, Eka (Lika Babluani), as she performs a Georgian folk dance — a kintauri — at her best friend’s wedding party. Like My Happy Family, the emotionally-charged performance arrives after a dour scene in a bathroom, where Eka and the newly wedded Natia (Mariam Bokeria) talk about marriage away from the prying eyes and ears of family. It’s a low-key argument, placid in nature but devastating in consequence; Eka asks if Natia even loves her new husband, prompting Natia to half-heartedly defend him. “He didn’t force anything on me, it just happened,” she says. The dance, then, serves not as an apology but as Eka’s declaration of commitment to her friend; everyone sees Eka winding her way across the room but only Natia understands her message.
Manana’s song has no such secret audience. Her performance is inward-facing but doesn’t reach the depths of catharsis, serving as a momentary, confusing escape from her now upended world. Her story up to this point is simple enough: she’s a schoolteacher who moves out of her family home — crowded with her parents, husband, two adult children, and her daughter’s husband — preferring to rent her own apartment. Manana leaves them (and, as it turns out, even her extended relatives) in a state of shock, though they all struggle to explain exactly why they are so angry at her desertion.2 What she learns at the reunion, moments before she sings, is that the terms of her decision to leave, and the way people perceive it, have changed. What was an act of self-love and a reclamation of purpose in life, performed in sharp rebuke to the patriarchal family unit, is suddenly positioned as a justifiable escape from family scandal Manana herself never knew.
This family secret carries with it societal expectations Manana sought to escape, and grappling with those draws her back into the world of her kin: her daughter’s marriage unravels and her son finds himself a heavily pregnant bride (played amusingly by Mariam Bokeria), while her husband Soso (Merab Ninidze) waits it out. There’s a wonderful match cut from Manana, sitting on a balcony potting new plants in the sunshine, to Soso, staring out the open kitchen door at the fully-grown trees outside their apartment building, blanketed by rain and harsh wind. He spends a lot of his screen time staring around the apartment, gradually coming to understand the seismic shift that is Manana’s absence but never accepting its permanence. He knows, rightly, that her leaving was not a result of any one incident, but he avoids any self-reflection, accepting solitude as an abstract punishment and little more.
The film imposes this sense of waiting on the audience, too. The muted colour palette and Tudor Vladimir Panduru’s handheld long-takes reiterate a commitment to social realism Nana & Simon first made with In Bloom. In spite of this, My Happy Family relishes its sensory pleasures: sunlight streaming into a room, the indulgence of eating cake for breakfast. The first time we see Manana really smile is in a market, as she peruses colourful stalls of fresh produce. Where once the market was a chore, a stop on her mother’s shopping list, now it’s rendered anew, and Manana finds herself free from an imposed culinary order. Food becomes a physical embodiment of her freedom: she experiments with traditional recipes for herself alone.
That is, until the film’s final scene. Manana offer a meal to Soso, who visits the new apartment after he insists on installing some shelves. It’s much quieter than the fractious dinner table he has come to know over the last three decades. Here, silence — punctuated by the sound of trees or a piece of classical music on the radio — is a central feature, not the fruits of momentary escape. A knock at the door suddenly interrupts their reunion, and the scuffle that follows sharply reiterates the way the men of the film see women as dependent on them for both protection and direction. Though the drama of these final moments runs high, Nana & Simon resist the impulse to provide any concrete sense of closure. As Ekvtimishvili explained earlier this year, “if you start to understand everything, it’s not cinema.” The sparseness and patience of My Happy Family are integral to its power, matching the inscrutability of Manana herself.