It’s hard to tell where the acting begins and ends in Tova Mozard’s film, The Big Scene (2010). The artist plays her role as daughter alongside her mother and grandmother in a psychological drama worthy of Ingmar Bergman, yet true to the details of her own family tragedy. Filmed without an audience at Stockholm’s ornate Royal Dramatic Theatre, where Bergman once reigned as managing director, the three generations are joined onstage by a female therapist, who seems to double as a soul prompter, reminding the players not of their lines, but of the emotions behind them.
The Big Scene actually opens backstage in the dressing room, where the women apply gaudy make-up – pasty face powder, pink circles on the cheeks, waterproof (and tear-proof) mascara – as protection and camouflage. ‘You see what make-up can do?’ asks the mother, gazing into the mirror, ‘You don’t have to deal with each other.’ Yet the cosmetic treatment ends up hiding the women’s faces as poorly as the costumes fit their bodies; dressing up leaves them exposed, if not grotesque. Once on stage, they are still wearing tight stocking caps on their heads instead of wigs and seem to be drowning in layers of old silk and lace. Stuck in separate chairs – mother, grandmother and then daughter-artist – the group looks like a child’s collection of favourite Victorian bedtime dolls whose wear-and-tear is the result of too much love. Far from appearing as the collector, the therapist looks as inconspicuous and neutral as a museum label, perhaps capable of clarifying the history of this motley crew.
While the theatrical setting is obvious – perhaps too obviously linked to the living dolls in Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play, A Doll’s House, or even E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Sandman (1816) – all the male characters and all the dramatic elements are missing, from the climax to the dénouement. What’s intriguing – and addictive – are the narrative and the timing, which remain distinct from a traditional theatre play. The women’s improvised exchange resembles a rambling therapy session, moving from events in the past to the present, as if time had not managed to pass. The family tragedy – both mother and daughter were children when their respective fathers killed themselves – is never explained but gradually seeps out of the exchanges. Emotions, confessions and accusations abound, yet there are no dramatic exits, nor are there resolutions. Suddenly, the women decide to compare the sizes of their ears, only to take a coffee and bathroom break. We see them standing alone at separate locations offstage, and then the film is finished. One wonders if the play will have any impact on their lives, or if it’s even really over.
In The Big Scene, Mozard captures not only her family history but also the suffocating roles that haunt all families, from the silent one to the troublemaker. I found myself rooting for the mother, only to agree with the daughter that she talks too much, and then wishing she would say more when a pause stretched into an uncomfortable silence. Did she choose the chatty role simply because no one else would play it? Even more disturbing are the recurrences, which go beyond genetics. The Big Scene is a gigantic photocopying machine, churning out similar fates from one generation to the next: paternal suicides, dreams, expressions and even gestures. As the mother talks – and talks – the grandmother and the daughter twist their fingers unconsciously in unison, like two wind-up dolls. But it’s impossible to know who has the key.