NYFF – ‘I Was at Home, But’ is an Enigma of an Art House Film

I like to champion the idea that garbage can be art too. Film, as all art, is unequivocally subjective, but even universally loathed films have their merits to certain people. I like to spend a good bulk of my time online hyping up the much-maligned 2013 film, Movie 43. Many people like to view it as a joke – I certainly do tend to treat it as one – but there is an unstated amount of truth behind every self-loathing crack I post to Twitter about loving “bad films” such as that one. Beauty and ugliness define the world we live in, but ugliness is what we least like to see. Movies deemed terrible endure turned-up noses and scorned looks from those who say otherwise; Rob Zombie makes crappy movies to people who don’t like the wretched, reeking filth of blood thirst and reprehensible white trash. Movie 43 is a comedy film that makes me laugh. I think Movie 43 is good.

Lowbrow is lowbrow, and there is a connotative weight to the idea that we must define certain things as guilty pleasures rather than expose them as true loves or passions. Ugliness is what I would more like to see, personally – awful things, loathsome things; things that make our stomachs churn, that makes us squirm and cringe, that make us angry, and hateful, and that remind us that not all art has to be beautiful. Some art is ugly, art is allowed to be ugly, and it can be good because it’s ugly, too.

So, it can be frustrating to watch a film like German director Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But, a film so abstractly self-indulgent it causes a trash-sympathiser like myself to positively scoff and recoil at its gratuitous poeticisms and entirely drawn-out child reenactments of Hamlet. I’m not a person to shrink from the uncanny or the conceptual – I fawn over the supernatural mystic of Twin Peaks and the overall nightmare surrealism of David Lynch’s entire filmography. I wouldn’t call a film like I Was at Home, But “pretentious,” but it wasn’t a film made for me. I don’t really know who this film was made for, actually. I don’t know if I’ve ever even met a single person who would consider this a film for them.

In a nutshell, the movie follows the simple story a child who goes missing, returns, and the outward ramifications of his disappearance and reappearance in the aftermath. Every character in this movie is infuriating to a degree, some more and some less so. The film is mostly focused on the boy’s mother, Astrid (Maren Eggert), a widow of two years now dealing with the emotional toll her son’s absence has taken on her. She’s an exasperating woman to say the least, neurotic to a fault, who throws childlike temper tantrums and positively roars at her children as if she never wanted them. All characters speak as if every word they say carries some metaphoric, underlying meaning that you might be missing out on, six degrees north of Wes Anderson dialogue where there is no quirk, only coldness and perceived profundity. 

Characters ruminate, unmotivated, on love and existentialism, on life and art, in a world where teachers start randomly play-fighting as knights during meetings and children seem to be unmonitored as they recite Shakespearean dialogue. Astrid buys a bike that eventually breaks, and she fights for an eternity like an inane child with the man who sold it to her; her son contracts sepsis in his foot and loses a toe, Astrid delivers a desperate and prolonged monologue to her son’s teachers, her children go walking through a river in the woods. Something, something, something, poetic cinema. It’s a series of scenes that drag into absolute oblivion and leave you grasping at the air for some semblance of tangibility, when all the film really wants to give you is aesthetically pleasing shots of a dog eating a dead rabbit and a donkey standing listlessly nearby in a barn.

There is nothing wrong with art meant to pick at your brain, force you to step out of the comfortable confines of a three-act structure and interrogate your perceptions of cinema and storytelling, but I Was at Home, But feels like mostly white noise. The film is ninety percent empty space punctuated by undergrad sequences of galaxy brain garble that is more frustrating than genuinely moving or meditative. Instead of thought-provoking, the film feels like a handful of eclectic, emotionless sequences meant to carry an implied weight but which ring near-empty and instead eyeroll-inducing. Perhaps, if the film was not pushing two hours, everything would feel less egregious in retrospect, maybe even the beauty of the film would end up coming through. But patience is tested just as much as the ability to stand formalism in the truest sense of the idea, and I Was at Home, But ends up a joyless trek from start to finish.

by Brianna Zigler

Brianna Zigler is a graduate in Film-Video and Writing from Penn State University with big plans and not a lot of planning. She loves horror, absurdism, Twin Peaks, is a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and currently has almost 250 movies in her watchlist. Her favorite films are What We Do in the ShadowsA Serious ManLord of the Rings: The Return of the KingSwiss Army Man, and Suspiria. You can follow her on Twitter @briannazigs

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