‘The Father,’ Daughter and Holy Ghost of Memory

Florian Zeller combines the intimacy of theater with an inventive cinematic eye.

I recognized some of my father’s pained expressions in Anthony Hopkins’ face in The Father. The actor’s emotions felt recognizable and real because they came from Florian Zeller’s personal experience. In a Zoom interview, the French playwright turned filmmaker was forthcoming about the screenplay’s origins. “I wrote the play and screenplay because I grew up with my grandmother,” Zeller explained. She was a second mother to him. When he was fifteen, she began to suffer from dementia. “She was an incredibly strong woman with a vibrant personality,” he recalls. It was a painful process for her to undergo and for him, as he watched the disease diminish her. 

Years later, when he sat down to write the story, Zeller decided to tell a more universal approach that everyone could relate to and understand. “Everyone has a grandmother or a father. Everyone, at some point, has to take care of someone ill,” he says. The only actor Zeller had in mind for the role was Hopkins. “Ever since I first saw him onscreen, I had a familiar feeling about him, as if he was a part of my family.” By choosing him, the director felt that the audience’s past associations with Hopkins would inform their reactions. 

In films like The Remains of the Day and The Silence of the Lambs, he leads with his cold intellect. Hopkins is in control of the people in his life, an authoritative patriarch. To see him in The Father, step by step, becoming weaker and slowly losing his identity — Zeller knew that, for viewers familiar with his work, this film would be a troubling experience. One that would make us think of our own debilitated family members or friends.     

For his performance in The Father, Hopkins received a nomination this year for a Best Actor Oscar. Zeller provided the actor with an opportunity to explore a range of emotions. From rage and frustration to feelings of helplessness and resignation. What the director found most compelling though was the soul’s struggle going on underneath these tangled emotions. The Father was initially conceived of as one part of a trilogy of plays, along with The Mother and The Son. Zeller says the plays are related thematically but stand on their own.

Talking about this family trilogy led the director to discuss the reasons why people engage with art in the first place. Zeller is impassioned and expansive on the subject. “What we’re looking for in the theater or the cinema is a mirror, of one kind or another, in which we can look at ourselves. Lose ourselves, sometimes. Or connect with a part of ourselves that we often ignore.” It makes sense to him that families are at the center of this exploration. Sometimes there’s a great deal of love within a family. Sometimes too much. What’s upsetting for Anthony’s daughter Anne is figuring out that love isn’t enough to cure or save her ailing father. 

The Father takes place indoors, inside Anthony’s London flat. Zeller’s set design, like Anthony’s troubled mind, is constantly shifting. Anne (Olivia Colman) appears from time to time but it’s increasingly difficult to get our bearings. Are we in her flat or Anthony’s? We start to scrutinize the physical surroundings more carefully. Time and place lose their meanings. The director disorients the audience in the same way that Anthony is disoriented in his own life as dementia takes hold of him.

Zeller designed his blueprint for the apartment as if it too was another main character. “I wanted The Father to be, not just a story, but also an experience,” an immersive experience he calls a “labyrinth of confusion.” The interior design, little by little, keeps changing. “There are changes in the decor. Sometimes the proportions change or the colors. Certain elements disappear,” he says. As soon as the viewer gets accustomed to the apartment, doubts creep in. The director’s sleight of hand is subtle enough to make us question our relationship to solid walls and furniture. 

But this is as much Anne’s dilemma as it is her father’s, the director says. She doesn’t know if it’s the right time to put him in a nursing home. By making that decision, their roles are inverted. Anne becomes the parent, forced to accept the inevitable. The Father, Zeller says, is not simply the story of a man who’s losing his memory. While his relationship with reality becomes increasingly unreliable, Anne comes to terms with her powerlessness. The film is an exploration of the paradoxes we all must face in life. Zeller says, “That’s what I wanted to accomplish with this film.”

(The interview with Florian Zeller was conducted in French and has been translated, and condensed, into English.)

The Father is now playing at the Embarcadero Center Cinema and is available to stream online March 26.

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