Time Of Moulting


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Time Of Moulting
"Each of the girls who plays Stephanie is remarkable in a different way." | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia

Sometimes, looking back at a troubled childhood, all one has is photographs from which to try to make sense of it all. In this very formal yet powerfully constructed drama, Sabrina Mertens envisages a life through 57 photographs given life, static camera shots into an existence that might otherwise have passed by unseen. Split into two parts, it first follows its heroine, Stephanie, through a larval stage in which she explores the world around her, gorging on whatever ideas she can find; then catches up ten years later as, emerging from puberty, she begins to unfurl the wings she has built from them, to reveal her adult self.

Part of Fantasia 2020, the film is perhaps notable for what it doesn't do, its narrative choices subtle and restrained, its interest not so much in what Stephanie does as in who she is. Shocking us with displays of violence is unnecessary because we can see easily enough what she is capable of. This approach also removes the temptation to make moral comparisons between potential harm to others and harm done to the self - or to distinguish between the outward manifestations of Stephanie's damage and what she carries within herself.

There is no sexual abuse evident here. There is no visible sign of violence, despite the tension that becomes manifest when her father (Bernd Wolf) is in a bad temper. Her mother (Freya Kreutzkam) seems to love her, reading her stories and showing affection when she can, but she's largely confined to bed by some unspecified chronic illness, complaining of back pain and clearly fatigued. Stephanie reports that she's bullied at school. She seems to go out of her way to alienate people and what friends she has don't come to the house, at first because of her mother's illness and then, increasingly, because it's dirty. Her mother can't clean. It's the 1970s, so her father doesn't. It doesn't occur to Stephanie to take on this role, even though there are often cleaning products in shot.

Over time, the clutter that builds up in the house comes yo seem inversely proportionate to the amount of attention paid to the growing child, who explores her small environment like an animal trying to find every possible use for the things in its enclosure. Knives and anatomy books fascinate her. In the garden she tortures slugs, seeking to provoke cruelty. Behaviours which might ordinarily be described as 'attention seeking' are, in the clear absence of any prospect of attention, revealed as something else. This is untamed humanness, natural instinct let loose in the absence of any control. When she's older, failure to get her own way manifests simply as anger. She has no negotiation skills beyond animal cunning, no real emotional control.

At times there's a kind of beauty about this. Stephanie's complete lack of self-consciousness becomes striking as she enters adulthood, manifest in the complete absence of learned feminine habits of moving or speaking. Mertens' direct gaze captures her simply as a person using her body in whatever way is most practical. Though she appears caged by the walls around her, her complete obliviousness to social hierarchy gives her a kind of freedom.

Each of the girls who plays Stephanie is remarkable in a different way. Zelda Espenschied is simply extraordinary for a girl of her tender years, delivering a resoundingly natural performance that's compelling to watch. Miriam Schiweck is impressive in the way that she convinces as a continuation of the same character, and in the way she strips from her body and speech all manner of social conventions so pervasive in the average person's upbringing that they often seem hardwired. Mertens' still camera and the relative passivity of the other actors mean that they dominate the screen, brimming over with youthful energy yet with nowhere healthy for it to go.

Time Of Moulting gives the effect of something like a catalogue of evidence being pored over after an awful thing has happened, the sort of retrospective assessment made when trying to pinpoint what went wrong. Sometimes nothing specific has gone wrong; there's just an aching absence of support. In a Germany where the far right is once again on the rise and people are asking how it is that they failed to communicate the lessons of the past to the young, the film seems to speak to wider failures - perhaps a failure to understand that there is nothing naturally good and pure about childhood and civilisation depends on each generations's efforts to inculcate its values in the next.

There is no room for sentimental illusions in this film. It is a time for stripping away the pretence surrounding childhood to reckon with whatever new creature might emerge.

Reviewed on: 07 Sep 2020
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Time Of Moulting packshot
Ignored by her mentally ill mother and largely absent father, a young girl retreats into an inner world of barbaric fantasies, with brutal consequences.

Director: Sabrina Mertens

Writer: Sabrina Mertens

Starring: Zelda Espenschied, Miriam Schiweck, Freya Kreutzkam, Bernd Wolf

Year: 2020

Runtime: 80 minutes

Country: Germany


Fantasia 2020

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