The internal struggles of a character are often the most difficult to portray in a visual medium. Filmmakers have to find clever and interesting ways to translate the interior to the exterior, so the audience can understand what a character is thinking or feeling without the aid of dialogue. There are many tricks of the trade for this, the simplest and easiest being voiceover narration, but director Klaudia Reynicke has found much more inventive ways to get us inside the head of the main character in her film, Love Me Tender, and they are quite effective.
Love Me Tender is a sometimes harrowing, sometimes hilarious story of a woman who is seemingly suffering from a form of agoraphobia and refuses to leave the house she shares with her parents. While any specific diagnosis of what ails our main character, Seconda, played by Barbara Giordano, is never given, we learn pretty quickly that she refuses to go outside. In addition to that, we get the sense that she is somewhat emotionally stunted. Although she is a full-grown adult, she doesn’t seem to have any interest in things other than watching TV or playing games. In addition, she wears the same thing every day, a one-piece leotard, which further enhances her child-like persona.
It’s all quite odd, and over half of the film is spent with Seconda in the house, alone, after the sudden death of her mother and abandonment by her father. It ends up being quite tedious and unpleasant, watching Seconda scavenging for food and trying to keep it together. It’s sad and depressing and you wonder how and why you are supposed to even care what’s happening to this woman. But then, almost suddenly, the movie shifts. Seconda finally accepts that she has to find a way to leave the house and the film immediately becomes something else. What had been a morose, depressing trudge through mental illness becomes almost a farcical comedy as we watch Seconda move out into the world. Giordano is fantastic as she uses physicality to convey Seconda’s discomfort and determination. The tonal shift is welcome, as are the introduction of other characters, to comic effect.
And yet, even though the second half of the film is loaded with light-hearted black comedy moments, the reality of Seconda’s condition—whatever it is—does not go away and she is still confronted with navigating her fears and anxieties, which are crippling. Reynicke never makes fun of Seconda, and we are never really laughing at her, which is a masterful stroke of direction and writing. This character is truly absurd, and yet we grow to care about her, and, as the film goes on, her internal torment and possible reasons for her condition are slowly revealed in ways that are quite moving and well done. Reynicke gives us more and more to fill in the blanks even though we may never fully understand her.
Love Me Tender found a way to grab hold of me even though I was pushing it away for the first hour. Seconda’s journey and Giordano’s indelible and hilariously heartbreaking performance are more than enough to overcome the film’s uncomfortable moments.
This review is from AFI FEST 2019.
This article was originally published on AwardsWatch.com.