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Jacqueline Lentzou’s short films have been garnering prizes on the international festival circuit for some time. Moon, 66 Questions is her debut feature; its subtitle is “A Film About Love, Movement and Flow (and The Lack of Them)” – an appropriately enigmatic title for a film that holds so much of itself at bay.
The film is set in the present, but it opens with grainy camcorder imagery, date-stamped with various months and years in the late 1990s, of seemingly inconsequential scenes and moments. On the soundtrack, there’s a conversation in which one female voice tells another that she is returning home after many years away, to care for her estranged father, found collapsed and dehydrated in his car.
We never learn where protagonist Artemis has been or what she’s been doing in the time between leaving home and her arrival back into the bosom of her family, nor what exactly caused the “communication problems” between her and the older relative she’s returned to care for: a man she addresses by his forename, Paris, and refers to as “a favourite uncle” but who indeed appears to be her father. Artemis (Lentzou’s regular collaborator Sofia Kokkali, bearing a striking resemblance to British actress Rose Leslie) is a taciturn presence, although she records a diary that plays as voiceover accompanying footage from those mysterious tapes, which we gradually realise are Paris (Lazaros Georgakopoulos)’s own past attempts to document a private life. Artemis cannot talk to Paris, but in private, she pretends to be him. We watch her dragging her inert legs across the marble floor, drinking his whisky and shakily smoking his cigarettes, and, in one stand-out scene, acting out both roles in the recreation of an argument between Paris and her teenage self. Just so, the cause of Paris’s illness – which contorts his body, sends tremors through his hands and renders him almost mute – is given as, variously, MS, a stroke, a birth defect, and, as Paris’s awful brother-in-law sniffs, “something that came later”.
Artemis’s extended family lends a grotesque levity to proceedings, functioning as a kind of chorus to the quiet drama that plays out between father and daughter. They attend Paris’s physiotherapy en masse, sipping liqueurs and smoking from ivory cigarette holders as they leer at his attempts to walk. Later they will jeer and laugh at the hapless Eastern European women who interview for the permanent position of nurse. There’s something jarring about these moments of cruelty. Alongside the use of amateur video and an early planimetric shot of Paris’s car, they are reminiscent of the cynical, skewering gaze of Jessica Hausner, Ruben Östland or Yorgos Lanthimos. A sequence in which Artemis creeps down a corridor in a plague mask suggests something more sinister yet.
But there’s a tenderness to Lentzou’s approach that is better revealed in small, surreal touches, such as Artemis recounting her nightmare to a pair of blond children, or joking about artificial limbs in a wheelchair salesroom, and the moments of lightness that she shares with some (presumably) old friends that appear midway through the film as if from nowhere. Perhaps the funniest scene shows her trying, and repeatedly failing, to drive her father’s car. It’s a sequence that gives way to violence, yes, but also to clarity and compassion, as the puzzle pieces suddenly click into place and both Artemis and audience are able to understand what has for so long gone unspoken.
It’s typical of Lentzou’s gift for showing, not telling (“I like to see things”, Artemis tells her unseen interlocutor). Typical too of a film in which any connection between Artemis and Paris – a burp and the resulting laughter, a trouserless shuffle across a room, entwined like a pair of dancers – comes from somewhere beyond language. A scene where Artemis must change her father’s soiled underwear is powerfully moving. So too is the gorgeous, desperate hug the pair share in the film’s closing moments. As the daughter clings to the father, her face buried against his neck, we can feel the cotton of Paris’s shirt, the warmth of skin through fabric, the damp of Artemis’s tears. I was reminded of Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek’s climatic embrace in Toni Erdmann. Both scenes are richly tactile and vibrate with inarticulable feelings.
It’s over 80 minutes into Moon, 66 Questions’s 108-minute running time before it starts to make sense. It’s not an easy watch, asking that we pay attention even as its opacity and somnolence make that a difficult ask. But the effort will be rewarded. It’s an important accomplishment from a gifted filmmaker with a uniquely nuanced, untethered style, and a film that lingers in the mind for days after it has finished.
► Moon, 66 Questions is in UK cinemas from Friday.