Karlovy Vary 2019 Review: ‘Lara’ an exquisitely detailed psychological drama
On her sixtieth birthday, an overly-critical mother comes to terms with both the impact she’s had on her son as well as the course of her own life in Lara, a striking, sure-handed sophomore feature from German director Jan Ole Gerster (Goodbye Berlin) now playing as part of the main competition in this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
Lara Jenkins (played by Corinna Harfouch, in a commanding performance) wakes up on her birthday by contemplating suicide - - an act she may go through with if not interrupted by the police, who have come to search the flat of a neighbor (André Jung) whose son is suspected of some wrongdoing.
“He’s a good boy,” Mr. Czerny assures Lara. “He may have some problems, but nothing criminal.”
Lara’s son Viktor, meanwhile, is an accomplished concert pianist who will be giving a concert debuting his own composition on the evening of his Lara’s birthday - - but who will receive no such words of kindness from his own mother.
With her birthday plans interrupted, Lara might as well attend her son’s concert before following through - - a journey that lasts the rest of the film. She begins by emptying her bank account, buying up the remaining tickets, and trying to scrounge up some long-forgotten acquaintances to invite along.
It’s a journey that brings her into contact with some key players in the lives of both her and her son, including ex-husband Paul (Rainer Bock), Lara’s own mother (Gudrun Ritter), and Viktor’s girlfriend Johanna (Mala Emde) - - all of whom offer Viktor the kind of support he lacks from his mother.
Tom Schilling, who starred in the lead in director Gerster’s previous film Goodbye Berlin, plays Viktor with a quiet tenacity; he only shares a couple key scenes with his mother Lara, but there’s an earnest anxiety bubbling throughout his scenes that nicely conveys the mother-son relationship - and the raw power Lara still wields over her son.
Most important among the figures from Lara’s past, however, might be her old piano teacher Professor Reinhoffer (Volkmar Kleinert), who shares a couple revealing scenes that give us insight into who Lara was, and the kind of person she has become.
It doesn’t sound like there’s much going on throughout Lara, and in pure story terms, there isn’t. But whatever complexities the narrative lacks are made up for in Gerster’s intense, brooding direction, which suggests multiple layers of mystery and complexity beneath the surface. The film is aided immensely by a wonderfully enticing original score from Arash Safaian, which turns what might otherwise be a low-key character study into a De Palma-esque psychological thriller.
Director Gerster requires a lot from his lead performer here, but star Harfouch is more than up to the task, conveying subtle complexity and psychological intrigue through . It’s a commanding performance that ought to earn Karlovy Vary Best Actress honors for the actress, who previously won the award at KVIFF in 1988 for Der kleine Staatsanwalt.
Given the piano-playing themes and psychological intrigue, Lara may inevitably be compared to Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, which starred Isabelle Huppert in role not entirely dissimilar to the one played by Harfouch. Lara may not be as intense, and ultimately memorable, as that film, but the complex narrative it weaves is just as engaging: this is a tightly-wound, thoroughly compelling psychological drama that cements Gerster’s reputation as one of the most talented young directors coming out of Germany.