Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Film Review : Parlour Palm by Rebeccah Love

I'm happy to share my friend's Mitch Greenberg's review of Rebeccah Love's newest short film, Parlour Palm, currently streamable via CBC Gem as part of the Future of Film Showcase. - D.D. 


Parlour Palm is everything the Canadian critical establishment has celebrated: an uncanny re-presentation of psychosis, an animated domestic drama, a philosophical enigma. But these remain insufficient grounds of celebration. Parlour Palm is something more: it is a rebuttal to Canadian cinema’s ‘tradition of quality’.

Canadian audiences have long lamented the general malaise of our national cinema, and providence has responded with Parlour Palm, a narrative art object of remarkable formal and thematic unity.

Parlour Palm begins with a static montage depicting the idyllic domestic life of partners Brayden and Mel. Rebeccah Love ingeniously frames the montage as though framing a doll’s house: her heroes live in spiritually hollow comfort, in atomized bliss.

But when Mel’s growing obsession with the apocalyptic implications of climate change clashes with Brayden’s professional ambitions, the plastic coating of their domestic life whittles away, revealing the scarred skin and strained sinews of Mel’s psychic terror.

As Mel’s obsession deepens, her thoughts and behaviour gradually grow more disorganized. Love depicts Mel’s decompensation from the confines of the dining room, as if Mel’s entire life is contained within those four walls.

The irony of Mel’s obsession with the environment is well observed: living as a virtual shut-in, Mel’s window into climate change is purely digital. She learns everything about climate change inorganically, through the mediation of a computer screen. She is remarkably disconnected from ‘the natural world’: she lives hermetically, has no professional life, no social life, no discernible hobbies, and her sole connection to ‘the environment’ exists through her coveted plant that sits listlessly in her parlour.

Given Mel’s hermetic existence, what could possibly be driving her obsession with climate change? Is her empathy theoretical, or does she personally know anyone suffering the consequences of climate change? Or perhaps her obsession with climate change functions as a psychological totem for more personal existential anxieties? And despite the remoteness of climate change to Mel’s life, are Mel’s anxieties reasonable given the magnitude of the impending climate apocalypse? Is it Brayden who’s living in pathological denial?

Fortunately, Love doesn’t answer these questions. To answer the basic questions of Mel’s psychology would be to neuter the film’s libidinal, mysterious energies. The mystery surrounding Mel’s decompensation is partly what makes the character so compelling. Sarah Swire’s performance of Mel is so immediate, audacious, and fearless, that Rebeccah Love rightly eschews any crude moments of psychological exposition.

The climax of the film occurs in a long take depicting a now floridly psychotic Mel giving some kind of theatrical performance for Brayden. Mel has transformed the dining room into a theatre, and she delivers a strange and compelling performance that includes poetry and song, in which she indicts Brayden, and herself, and the world, for their complicity in contributing to Mother Earth’s murder.

Rebecca Love’s cinema is a cinema of dramatic immediacy and formal invention. Love unifies Mel’s claustrophobia with an artificial, theatrical cinematic form. It’s as if Swire’s Mel is trapped within the artifice of the form itself, struggling to break free.

Mel is a character in the same vein as Brecht’s Galileo, or The Matrix’s Neo, or A Woman Under the Influence’s Mabel - Mel is a woman persecuted for her revelation of the truth.

I find myself left with this question about Love’s formalism: Is Parlour Palm a social film realized in cinematic terms? Or is it a cinematic film realized in social terms? Does it matter, when we have a new luminary of Canadian cinema?

Mitch Greenberg