‘Mother, Couch’ Review: A Surreal Journey Through Family Dynamics and Existential Conflict

I appreciate all genres of cinema. It’s true: there’s no style of storytelling or any fictional setting that automatically puts me off – I genuinely believe all genres have their respective masterpieces. That said, like any viewer, I have my personal preferences, and, indeed, there are a few types of movies with which I have more difficulty connecting. The subgenre – if it can be called that – of the absurd/surreal is one of them, so Mother, Couch was always going to be a challenging watch.

Jerker Virdborg’s novel, Mamma i soffa, brought to screen

For his feature film debut, writer-director Niclas Larsson chose to adapt the Swedish novel Mamma i soffa by Jerker Virdborg. The story begins with a mother of three sitting on a couch in a furniture store… and staying there. The siblings gather, as do the store owners, for a mind-bending journey of self-discovery. Even though I entered the theater without any prior knowledge of the movie – the cast was what caught my attention – it was clear from this premise that Mother, Couch was going to be a thinker.

And it was. Larsson fills his adaptation with ambiguity, symbolism, metaphors, and complex themes explored through dark humor, existential questions, and mainly, family dynamics. It’s the kind of film that makes general audiences give up within minutes because they’re forced to interpret all interactions between characters and plot points throughout the runtime without straightforward or palpable help. Mother, Couch is inaccessible in that regard – it requires constant reflection and pondering about what’s happening and what each moment means – but, personally, the topics studied and the narrative circumstances were surprisingly quite relatable.

Family dynamics in Mother, Couch

As the youngest of three siblings, it was impossible not to see myself in many of the dynamics between David (Ewan McGregor), Gruffudd (Rhys Ifans), and Linda (Lara Flynn Boyle), as well as in how each one interacts with their nameless mother (Ellen Burstyn) – a detail that’s obviously not by chance. Without resorting to any spoilers, it’s fascinating to watch a story so ambiguous yet so relatable. While something quite surreal is happening, I find a strange familiarity. Whether it’s the vastly different relationships between the mother and each child, the unresolved misunderstandings of the past that persist for decades, or the envious comparisons between family members, Mother, Couch has a lot to say about family in general.

The standout idea and message revolve around the analysis of conflict. The perspective that conflict is part of all families and that some problems are simply not meant to be resolved, but rather acknowledged and understood as part of life and family bonds, hit me deeply. We waste so much time being angry, sad, upset, and resentful over situations that often happened so many years ago that no one remembers exactly how they occurred or how they started. Yet, negative emotions remain instead of just moving on and accepting that life is more than misunderstandings or incomprehensible spontaneous actions.

An exploration of abandonment and grief

Larsson also explores family abandonment and the many ways people deal with grief. Like everything else, Mother, Couch is extremely ambiguous, with lots of material symbolism, and character and plot developments open to various interpretations. The couch isn’t just a couch. The store isn’t just a store. People aren’t just people. This overwhelming vagueness is present throughout the movie until the last second, which naturally brings its pros and cons.

A pro would be the fact that it’s possible to assemble so many theories that it’s easy to arrive at one that satisfies the viewer, besides the reflective power that the story possesses – whether you like Mother, Couch or not, it’s hard to leave the theater without your brain smoking. On the other side of the coin, infusing the narrative in a world where everything and everyone may not be real or simply what they’re supposed to be creates confusion and takes time to put all the pieces of the puzzle together – and when complete, although intriguing, the conclusion isn’t exactly groundbreaking.

Technically, Christopher Bear’s (Past Lives) score stands out for its comedic notes and melodies, contributing to the layer of humor that surrounds the film, emphasizing the ridiculous bits of dialogue with awkward pauses. That said, much of Mother, Couch‘s success comes from the outstanding performances of the cast. McGregor (Doctor Sleep), Ifans (House of the Dragon), and Boyle (Twin Peaks) share fantastic chemistry and show a fabulous joint effort in clearly distinguishing each sibling’s personality, but the Scottish actor delivers one of the most memorable performances of his career as a complex protagonist who goes through a seriously emotional roller coaster.

Burstyn (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) is equally imposing in portraying a mother whose life is filled with shocking and traumatic revelations. Taylor Russell (Bones and All) brings innocence and humility to Bella, the daughter of the furniture store owner, a character initially involved in a subplot that, in hindsight, lacks relevance but creates a connection with David important for the development of the protagonist’s arc.

It’s somewhat difficult to recommend Mother, Couch to someone who isn’t a cinephile with a particular taste for this type of narrative. I don’t consider Larsson’s work as inaccessible as, for example, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Men, or Beau is Afraid, but I would be lying if I wrote that it’s a light, cheap viewing meant to please the average moviegoer. It’s a film to think about and reflect on during and after watching, so if you look at cinema as a space for pure escapism and not to enter a cinematic lecture, I recommend skipping it. Just leave it for others to enjoy.

Final Thoughts on Mother, Couch

Mother, Couch challenges the viewer to dive deeply into complex themes of family, grief, and acceptance. Niclas Larsson adapts the source material with a mix of dark humor, ambiguity, and symbolism, creating a narrative that’s as surreal as it’s thought-provoking. With superb performances from the entire cast, especially Ewan McGregor, the film openly and contemplatively explores family dynamics and unresolved conflicts that linger over the years. While it may not be entirely accessible to the general audience, it offers a rich experience for those willing to interpret its multiple layers and meanings.

Score: B

Mother, Couch will be in Swedish theaters on July 5, 2024.


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