Located in the hotbed of European financial crisis, the Thessaloniki International Film Festival offers a lineup that’s predictably timely and overtly political. As the Greek parliament discusses the implementation of special economic measures, even the company responsible for providing the festival with electronic subtitles protests said measures by means of subversive inserts. The main competition is filled with movies about the ailing world of limited means and unjust distribution of wealth, and after the bizarre and derivative allegory of labor in Vahid Vakilifar’s Taboor and Amir Manor’s astutely titled Epilogue, which played like Michael Haneke’s Amour, only capitalism as a stand-in for death, the main competition now brings us Sylvie Michel-Casey’s Our Little Differences.
A master class in mise-en-scène precision, the movie tells that story of a well-off German gynecologist, Sebastian (William Koch), separated from his wife and currently taking care of his spoiled teenage son. Invited to appear as a pundit on a late-night TV show, Sebastian declares, “I look at birth and children as a source of joy,” unaware that the statement will get severely tested just the following day. It’s then that it turns out his son and his girlfriend have disappeared, along with the daughter of Jana (Bettina Stucky), the Bulgarian cleaning lady who works at Sebastian’s office and house. The paragon of slack-cutting parenting first denies there’s anything to worry about, only to slowly join Jana in her worried reaction and subsequent search.
As indicated by its title, the film is super-sensitive to class divisions, and Michel-Casey wastes no time dropping hints at Sebastian’s obliviousness to how the other half—namely Jana and her daughter—lives. “Will 50 euro be enough?” asks Sebastian in front of Jana before letting his son go to a party, a gesture as casual as greeting the cleaning lady in an unbuttoned shirt and boxer shorts, to her visible (to us, that is) discomfort. After Sebastian wishes her a good time, Jana asks herself for the definition of such in a lowered voice—just as she uncorks the bottle of a cleaning liquid to take care of Sebastian’s dirty dishes.
A shared concern for wayward offspring brings Sebastian and Jana together for the stretch of a single morning and an afternoon, with the predictable outpouring of mutual resentment arriving in due time. The confrontation reveals Sebastian’s moral blindness and Jana’s bitterness at being pushed down the social ladder by the fact of having been born on the wrong side of the iron curtain. “I was a teacher back in my country, you know!” she says to Sebastian during the film’s most blood-curdling moment, to which Sebastian responds with a barb that could only be uttered by someone lucky enough to deal only with first-world problems: “Why don’t you come back, then?”
Given its perfectly timed direction, fine script proportions, excellent acting, and clear affinity for showing a single event that ripples through the class structure at hand, Our Little Differences is rather Farhadian in nature. Not as deep in its insights, or wide in its scope, as A Separation, the film seems nevertheless inspired by Asghar Farhadi’s brand of careful, multi-layered social observation—and is as much structured around a disturbing absence as his prior About Elly. (It’s also worth noting that the director seems to be channeling the real-time strategies of the Romanian new wave, and it comes as no surprise to discover that the film was co-written by Razvan Radulescu, one of Tuesday, After Christmas’s screenwriters).
After all is said and done, the two lives at the center of the film go off on their separate tangents yet again. Sebastian drives into the distance in his fancy car and Jana is staring out of her tiny flat’s window. They both seem imprisoned—though Sebastian’s cell has the extra padding that only money can buy. As the end credits roll, the screen splits in half and extra footage provides a semi-explanation to what made Jana’s daughter do what she did and rebel against her mother’s will. The silent images suggest a life about to switch gears—whether to any avail, we will never know.
The Thessaloniki International Film Festival runs from November 2—11. For more information, click here.