Berlin Film Festival Review: ‘The Woman Who Brushed Off Her Tears’ is a Revenge Film Disguised as an Arthouse Staple
Based on title alone, would you go see a movie called The Woman Who Brushed Off Her Tears? Probably not. It sounds like the kind of bland puffery that consists mainly of scenes where groups of women are crying and telling each other it’s going to be alright. The purple poetry of the name is unfortunate, because it almost guarantees that some will skip over a strong, unique revenge story with a killer lead actress. In this case, judging a movie by its poster is the wrong move.
From writer/director Teona Strugar Mitevska, it’s the kind of movie that toys around with convention and flirts with pretense while, for the most part, staying focused on characters and conflict. That conflict begins with a devastating opening scene which pairs timing, taboo and gripping performance to great effect. It’s a gut punch, but instead of picking you up off the curb, the movie kicks you when you’re down.
It’s a catalyst that greatly affects Helena (Victoria Abril), a parole officer who sleepwalks through work where everyone she deals with is brushing off crocodile tears. Her teenage son kills himself, unable to process being sexually abused at a young age by his father Emil (Jean-Marie Galey), and the way she responds to her world changes. Something invisible snaps.
The tragedy fills Helena with acid, and it’s in a weakened state that she’s convinced by parolee Lucien (Arben Bajraktaraj) to help him across the border into Macedonia to buy the love of his life, Aysun (Labina Mitevska) from a traditional father who’s pretty pissed that Lucien bedded her already and produced a boy who now mopes around the village in a Spider-Man mask. Helena needs closure, Lucien needs money and a ride. It could be the setup for a quirky indie comedy if things weren’t so dire and bleak.
But they are with incredible purpose. To be certain, it’s a story of strength and vengeance, but it’s atypical in almost every way. It’s the opposite of Taken, but it still involves a main character seeking retribution for an unforgivable sin. The core difference here is that Helena is a damsel in distress that decides to save herself. Lucien may seem manipulative, but he’s really a tool in a bigger plan from a woman changed.
To that point, Abril plays the character with saltwater veins and a face etched from whetstone. Mitevska is an empty vessel of a young woman, Bajraktaraj has the right amount of youthful angst, Galey is an asshole of the highest order, but it’s Abril that stands far above and beyond the other talent on screen. She’s a human knife, cutting through the density with zero tolerance even as she internalizes her husband’s hurtful idiocy. Instead of lashing out, she plots, making her far more terrifying in her nonchalance and calculations.
On the downside, the film suffers from the kind of faux-important padding that drags, but the camera work is surprisingly active – flinching between almost uncomfortably stark close-ups and a repeated trick of panning slowly to the right of left in order to catch characters moving to different rooms or (no kidding) to different mental states. The pans admittedly betray the insular nature of the story because they’re too noticeable as a film school-style trick, but DP Mátyás Erdély uses them enough to build them into something usable – like the jazz musician who hits a wrong note and then repeats it until it becomes an integral part of the solo.
The Woman Who Brushed Off Her Tears is effectively a crushing first and third act with some satisfying dramatic meat in the middle. It could do well with a tighter, less airy editing session to bring its angry tone better into focus, but there’s a lot to enjoy here. Is it a standard revenge story? Not at all. No one should expect ass kicking or action around every corner, but it’s in how the genre is manipulated here that’s commendable. There’s a dash of Chan-wook Park by way of Macedonia – often silent, but ultimately startling. Maybe just not as bizarre. What’s more, Helena’s motives are well-defined, making the ending not a shocking twist, but a release of tension that’s been smirkingly building from the moment she goes to pick up her son’s ashes.
Overall, it’s a pleasure that’s bathed in the dirty browns of the Macedonian farmland and the Belgium city center. It shares the same aged beauty as the lead whose performance cements it as an engrossing character study of a mind pushed off the edge of an apartment balcony. In short: funny name, serious movie.