News  ·  03 | 08 | 2023

Family Portrait

An exploration of a special kind of sorrow amongst family relationships that is so pervasive yet so fleeting.

© Conjuring Productions, Insufficient Funds, NSF

“Through a circle that ever returneth in / To the self-same spot”. Family Portrait, the hypnotic debut feature by American filmmaker and artist Lucy Kerr, opens with this sinuously fascinating and vaguely sinister quote from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Conqueror Worm, a poem about human mortality and the unavoidability of death. The New York-based director subtly tackles similar topics, but brilliantly succeeds in transcending them into something more personal and intimate, the exploration of a special kind of sorrow that is so pervasive yet so fleeting. Shot in only ten days in the home of the director’s grandparents in Kerrville, Texas, Family Portrait follows a big family on a summer morning which feels like and unlike any other. Plan of the day: a group picture. That should represent the strength of the familiar institution and testify to the virtual absence of conflicts within it. The family should look healthy and prosperous, pain should be concealed. A family portrait as a magic tool working in denial. But suddenly the mother disappears. As one of the daughters sets out to look for her, the rest of the family seems to resist the very idea of gathering and taking the picture. Anxiety builds up, the realm of the symbolic is in danger: that picture must be taken. And it should be taken despite the loss, a death almost overlooked, the silenced despair, the mourning denied. What starts as a realistic depiction of a sprawling family over a chaotic summer day, gradually loses its grip with time and space. These turn increasingly into suspended and magmatic non-coordinates, and the titular portrait takes the immaterial contours of an enigmatic ritual too hard to perform. In this respect, Poe’s opening quote also seem to suggest something more than simply its topics, something like a mood or a spiritual nuance: a suffocating circle, a false movement, the vacuity of this eternal return. Kerr – named one of the “25 New Faces of Independent Film” by the prestigious Filmmaker Magazine – resorts to her background in dance to shape her intuitions visually, making the camera movements and the movements of the characters within the frame like an ever-fluctuating choreography, as fluid and unstable as the portrayed family bubble. Kerr’s formal control and the complexity of her floating gaze are mesmerizing in describing this human ensemble, that repetitively acts as if it was disconnected from the world. It’s a vivid x-ray scan through the emptiness of their actions and conversations, and ultimately through the void, the black hole of family relations.


Eddie Bertozzi