This notion is further cultivated when most family members appear indifferent to the photograph. It deepens when Barbara disappears and is nowhere in the vicinity. No one except Katy worries about her mother’s absence, putting the value of the yearly tradition and the family’s closeness in question. Then, talks of a newfound disease that took the life of a relative, a direct reference to COVID, looms large. Driven by the dreaded threat of a forthcoming life-altering pandemic, Katy takes it into her own hands to find her mother and capture the picture. Given the realization of death and loss, the importance of a pictorial memory is further raised for the rest of Family Portrait.
The finale adds more mystery to the setting. The depiction of Katy’s mental stress and collapse builds a narrative that resonates with communication gaps, relations imbalances, and a general emotional distance between family members. But the story does not fixate on spinning off any thematic interpretation as the director’s intentions are clearly not to give the pandemic’s threat, traditions, or the family members’ personal lives any substantial significance. The crux is rooted more in the fact that probably nothing makes sense at all, and maybe it doesn’t have to. It’s a facade because ultimately, in all their togetherness, conversations, and casual catch-ups – the family is not eager to have the once-in-a-year moment captured. Perhaps Kerr’s intent is to highlight the growing distance between loved ones, which makes such traditions pointless and without emotional value.
“…Nikonova’s camera work artistically shoots this multi-layered picture…”
But, the filmmaker has taken a quiet yet perspicacious approach to convey it. Family Portrait stresses enigma and ambiguity throughout for the audience to experience the strangeness and anxiety more profoundly. And resonating with everyone’s deep-rooted unsociable traits is the choice of frames and shot composition. Often engaging in conversations, the characters are not clearly visible – their faces are either wholly or partially hidden behind objects like a tree or a netted hammock. The camera stealthily passes the characters’ positioning in each frame and, thus, does not weigh in on their dialogues. Supported by an eerie background score, these camera movements help this mystery thriller vastly sway from typical family drama features.
In a scene, Olek mentions that he cannot grasp the unsettling atmosphere of what is supposed to be a long-awaited gathering. As an outsider, he is the in-screen embodiment of the viewer, engulfed in a melancholic and worrisome situation that only Katy seems to interpret differently than others. This mystery is sustained, though any way out is never revealed.
Kerr’s directorial debut is an off-genre feature that tells a family drama, though it is set up as a thriller while garnished with the vibes of a mystery. Family Portrait depicts the psychological distortions caused by the fear of the future, a notion pulled off more in the movie’s mise-en-scène. And that is where the aesthetics lie – in the imagination and the interpretive unraveling of something unforeseen.
Family Portrait screened at the Locarno Film Festival 2023.
"…stresses enigma and ambiguity..."