A little girl sits in the kitchen of a friend’s house. The friend’s mother, wearing an apron, stands at the counter peeling potatoes. The mother says, “Sarah, would you like to stay for dinner?” Sarah, an alert bird-like little thing, says, “Oh. No. I have to get home.” Maybe it’s in how she says it, maybe it’s a little too intense, maybe it comes too quickly, but whatever it is it catches the mother’s ear, and she turns around to look at Sarah. Her son, Charlie, who is Sarah’s friend, explains to his mother, “Sarah’s mom hasn’t been well.” Then, impulsively, he reaches his arm across the table towards Sarah. His arm is too short to touch her, but the gesture is eloquent. The mother sees it all. She says, keeping things bright and cheerful, “Okay! Well, Sarah, just know you are welcome here any time.” Sarah says, “Thank you.” The mother turns back to her potatoes. Charlie and Sarah silently stand up and start to leave the room. Charlie touches his mom’s back, to let her know he’s walking Sarah to the door. He’s a good kid. As the children walk out of the room, the mother turns and watches them go. We don’t see her face. We don’t need to. Underneath her behavior is a silent alarm bell going off. I am worried about that child.
She should be.
Passionflower, a first feature directed and written by Winnipeg filmmaker Shelagh Carter, is full of such silent eloquent moments, the kind of small moments that many films miss.
It is the early 1960s. Sarah (Kassidy Love Brown) and her brother Thomas (Ethan Harapiak) live with their parents in Winnipeg. Sarah is 10 years old, and a good artist and student. Her father is in advertising. Her mother is a housewife. But we know right off the bat that something is “off” in that house. Sarah shows her mother her report card excitedly and her mother criticizes Sarah’s clothing, “Darling, you’re a mess.” That very well may be just the distracted response of a busy mother, right? But Kristen Harris, as Beatrice, in a searing unforgettable performance, manages to convey, with no language, the invisible faultlines running through this woman’s character, fault lines that will wrench apart over the course of the film. She’s a housewife, yes. She cooks a big dinner, and then she and her kids sit at the table waiting for the husband to come home. Nobody eats or speaks. The silence is loaded and intense. Beatrice is beautiful, and dressed to the nines. Her wine glass is full to the brim. When she looks at her son, her face cracks into a warm and gushing smile. When she looks at her daughter, her eyes squint in a cold assessing manner. All of this behavior is in the first five minutes of the film. When the father, David (played by the wonderful Darcy Fehr) walks into this environment, the kids visibly relax. He somehow brings with him a sense of air and space, of the world outside that house. He, in his slicked hair, dark suit with handkerchief in the pocket, is an emissary from outside the bell jar. But we can also see, in the anxious tender way he treats his wife, that all is not well. “How was your day?” he asks her, in the same tone one would use to talk to a chronic invalid. She seems beyond words. She kisses him hungrily. She stares at him across the table. As the kids clear the plates, she turns on music in the living room and draws him up out of his seat to dance with her. His arms grasp her tightly. They circle together in the living room, a contained unit of need and passion, as little Sarah crouches behind the door, watching.
Sarah sees everything.
Passionflower is the brutal depiction of a woman disintegrating into psychosis, a psychosis that has probably been bubbling under the surface for years. Her daughter’s burgeoning success at school is a trigger. There is something uneasy in their relationship. Sarah has a cat that she fawns over and takes care of. Beatrice, when alone with the cat, hisses at it in a hostile manner. Beatrice favors her young son. Sarah, adrift, loses herself in her drawings, where she mainly portrays happy smiling families and sunshiny skies.
Sarah befriends a young boy at school, Charlie, played by the sweet Mitchell Kummen, and they bond about art. Charlie draws superheroes. Sarah praises his work. She lets him into her secret world. Every day after school, she goes and hangs out at a local barber shop. She takes Charlie there. Without a word of dialogue, you understand that the barber shop is Sarah’s safe place, it is where she goes before going home to the hothouse environment of her mother’s realm. She sits in the barber chair, and draws. The walls are covered with naked girls. Sarah looks up at them with interest. “My mom used to be a model,” she informs Charlie proudly. Charlie says, “My mom … is just a mom.”
Beatrice and David throw a party for some of David’s colleagues. Beatrice dresses as though she is going to the Oscars. David has invited Myra (Cindy Marie Small) and her husband Bill (Lyle Bernard Morris). Before the guests arrive, Beatrice and David have a tense conversation. Myra and David were once involved, when they were in college. Beatrice can’t let it go. David reassures her: “But you got your man, didn’t you?” Beatrice, a chain smoker, coolly looks at her husband, and asks, “Did I?” The party, as can be expected, does not only not go well, it descends into anarchy. Beatrice comes on to Bill, and David catches her in the act. He pleads with her, “Not tonight …”, an interesting line, which shows that her behavior has been incorporated into the warp and weft of their marriage. He is not shocked that she is making out with one of their guests. This has happened before. Meanwhile, on the outskirts, Sarah crouches behind the couch in her pajamas, watching her mother’s appalling behavior.
Shot beautifully by Andrew Forbes, with a real sense of the period (the colors blue and cool) the camera in Passionflower floats from face to face, catching glimpses, fragments, truth. The camera is not random in its movements, it is highly specific, a laser beam cutting to the heart of a moment. Even in a complex multi-person scene like the party scene, we never lose track of what is happening. That is obviously due in large part to the actors, all of whom are phenomenal, but without that insightful camera the power of the event might be lost. The feeling in the scene is palpably disturbing, and also is reminiscent of what it was like to grow up in the 60s, when kids were banished from adult events. I have vivid memories of being a kid, sitting at the top of the stairs in my pajamas, listening to my parents below play bridge with their friends, the clinking of ice in the glasses, the laughter, the cigarette smoke. I wasn’t allowed down there. That was Grown-Up Time. I understood my part in the hierarchy. Passionflower really captures that generational dynamic.
The party ends with the guests fleeing into the night, Beatrice having attacked Myra with the devastating analysis, “At least I like to fuck”. Later that night, David is awakened by the sounds of his wife sobbing. He comes downstairs and finds her in the kitchen, totally naked, her handmade Oscar ceremony dress crumpled in a ball. Beatrice writhes on the floor in psychic anguish. Sarah, in tears, sits nearby, watching. David, horrified, runs to his wife, and the second he touches her, she erupts into violent resistance like a trapped animal. He struggles with his nude wife on the floor. All three actors are so lost in the chaos of the event that you yearn for escape, for relief and peace. The scene cuts off with Beatrice screaming in agony, a heartrending sound. This is not sadness we are seeing. What we are seeing is terror.
Something is wrong. Inside.
A doctor is called. Beatrice, who is, at the heart of it, a social woman, puts on her most charming self for the doctor, laughing at his questions, and saying, “I haven’t been sleeping, yes, I am quite tired.” The doctor prescribes a sedative. The look on David’s face during the doctor scene tells us all we need to know. He is our “way in”. He doesn’t think his wife needs rest. He thinks it must be something else.
Sarah hangs out with Charlie after school. He takes her to his safe place, a tit for tat with her barber shop. There is a shed in the woods filled with gardening equipment, and on the wall is painted a giant naked pin-up. He wanted to show it to her. Such an interesting scene, so delicate. It could have gone so wrong, this scene. Instead, what we see are two kids, bonding on a deep level, and the little boy showing something that he thinks will interest her. He’s right. Sarah stares up at the pin-up girl, and says solemnly, “She’s beautiful.” Sarah starts to incorporate pin-up girls into her drawings. She makes clothes for her paper doll collection, and now, instead of making nice little cocktail dresses, she starts to design bodacious bathing suits and see-through nighties. Charlie supports her in this. “That’s art,” he declares, looking at her naked lady drawings.
Sarah’s mother, who spends her days wandering through the empty house in her negligee, criticizes her daughter for being a tomboy. But instead of ushering her into the world of being a teenage girl, and maybe showing her how to use makeup, or giving her tips on clothing, she presents herself to her daughter in a competitive manner. “See how hot I am? You’re not hot. I am. Oh, well, sucks for you” is her underlying attitude. Sarah picks up on that. She retreats further into her loving relationship with her cat, and her obsession with pin-up girls. Her bookcase is lined with posing nude women, clothed in sexy garters and polka dot underwear. Nobody seems to notice. Sarah’s father is too consumed with worry for his wife. He misses the signals.
Seen mainly through Sarah’s eyes, Passionflower is a sensitive and painful evocation of the explosion of mental illness and how it affects one family. David’s mother (the fantastic Susan Kelso) seethes with judgment. “She’s an unfit mother,” she snaps.
In one unforgettable scene, Beatrice, who is supposed to be picking up her son, drives through the countryside on the outskirts of Winnipeg. The sky is vast and blue. She pulls over to the side of the road. She lies against the door of the car, smoking, staring out at the fields. It is impossible to ascertain how long she is out there. She gets out of the car, staring up and down the empty road. The scene is reminiscent of the opening of My Own Private Idaho, with River Phoenix placed on an endless road, looking back and forth. No way out. She starts to walk away from the car. The light is blinding. Suddenly, startlingly, the sound drops out. No more do we have the sound of wind and birds, or the sound of her heels on the pavement. Now we have a void of soundless space where we watch her take off her shirt, throw it to the side, we watch her pick up rocks on the side of the road and fling them off in a rage, we watch her suddenly lie down in the middle of the road, flat and prone. She turns over, staring up at the sky. There is no sound. We are left only with the abyss that is within her, the shivering knowledge that something is going very very wrong.
Events tailspin. Beatrice kills her daughter’s beloved cat. It becomes increasingly apparent that Beatrice is going to a place beyond the pale. This is no longer the expected boredom of a trapped housewife. This is something else entirely. There are a couple of ferocious confrontations, painful in their openness, the children present, watching their parents fight and scream. Sarah gets in trouble at school for drawing naked ladies. A sensitive teacher tries to talk to David about what might be going on at home. David says, “Everything’s fine.”
Of course that is what he would say. He is alone in his worry. In his role, as head of the household, it is his job to handle this situation. He doesn’t know what to do. He loves his wife. He does not understand what is happening to her.
And Beatrice doesn’t understand either. Her unnamed mental illness is like an outside force, something that descends upon her with the force of a thousand demons. He leaves her in the house, and she stands against the wall, alone, looking around her with panicked eyes. A whole day yawns in front of her, empty and meaningless. She whispers to herself, “I will be good ….. I will be good.”
Kristen Harris gives a tragic and powerful performance. Beatrice’s behavior is often unforgivable, and it is to Harris’ credit (and Carter’s as well, for the script) that although we judge her, we ache for her too. We see her writhing naked on the kitchen floor, and we want to soothe this woman’s pain. Her attempts at being social, her bright brittle laugh, are painful to observe. Flickers of unease pass through her eyes. Harris does not make the mistake of “playing crazy”. Instead, she plays the deep upheaval going on within Beatrice’s psyche, and the various attempts Beatrice makes to stave off the inevitable.
Darcy Fehr, as David, will be well-known to anyone familiar with Winnipeg director Guy Maddin’s films. He had key roles in Maddin’s Cowards Bend the Knee and Maddin’s autobiographical My Winnipeg (starring the great Ann Savage, where Darcy Fehr plays “Guy Maddin”). He is also in Maddin’s Keyhole (2011). A solemn-faced gentle presence, Darcy is a watchful careful character in Passionflower, and in the course of his marriage to Beatrice he has taken on the role of caretaker, not just provider. He senses that his wife is somehow not up to the challenges of her life. His concern is such that his children become secondary, until the key moment when Thomas is not picked up from school and Sarah gets in trouble for drawing naked ladies. Suddenly, he realizes that his family is shattering. Once the kids start to disintegrate, and once Sarah’s cat is killed, David must step up to the plate. He must make some difficult decisions. It is a tragedy for him as well. We get all of that in every shot of this wonderful actor. He brings a world of tenderness to his role, a world of loneliness.
Kassidy Love Brown makes her film debut in Passionflower, and she is the heart and soul of the picture. Not an easy job for a young untried actress, and she is wonderful, serious and sweet, open and accessible. It is a difficult role. The scenes with her young friend Charlie are gentle, showing that the young girl has quite a survivor’s instinct. She knows that Charlie is part of her “tribe”, a member of her chosen family as opposed to her natural family, the people who get her, understand her, see her. She will need many such people throughout her life, since her own family dynamic is a nightmare. She watches her mother’s descent into madness, and in one key scene she finally tells her father how afraid she is that she will go crazy herself.
Based on Shelagh Carter’s actual childhood, growing up with a mentally ill mother, this is no Lifetime Movie. There are no neat endings, no “and here is what we all have learned from this” catharsis. It is a more difficult film than that. It is honest about mental illness. It is honest about it in terms of how it impacts the woman suffering from it, but also honest about how it impacts her family, her children, and the deep reverberation that will continue to operate through their lives as they grow up. These children will be forever marked. Life is messy. Marriage is messy. Parenting is messy. Mental illness exacerbates the mess.
Passionflower, an heir to John Cassavetes’ great A Woman Under the Influence, refuses to be neat, and in this day and age, when adult domestic dramas have nearly vanished from our cinema, that refusal is almost a revolution.