Venice Film Festival: The Endless River

The Endless River
Directed by Oliver Hermanus
Starring Nicolas Duvauchelle, Crystal-Donna Roberts, Clayton Evertson, Darren Kelfkens and Denise Newman

by Katharine Fry

The Endless River by Cape Town-born Director Oliver Hermanus was my second Venice foray into a film broken down into chapters, here three, each dedicated to a different protagonist Gilles, Percy and Tiny.

We open with diner waitress Tiny (Crystal-Donna Roberts) collecting her husband Percy from prison and taking him back to her mother’s house. Their family meal is strained; Tiny and her mother Mona are clearly hard-working God-fearing women both hoping that this time Percy can be a good husband to Tiny following his four year stretch for rape and assault as part of a gang. Cut to Tiny and Percy’s first night together. This is no passionate reunion, his performance is lacklustre and her eyes are empty with sadness.

Cut to another a family living in the town of Riviersonderend – the endless river of the title – this one French and living in a large farmhouse. The wife / mother is all sensual big lips and slender limbs, a housewife of effortless sexy glamour. She calls her two button-cute sons in for the dinner she has lovingly prepared. Husband / father Gilles wanders in for dinner and the prefect family illusion is shattered. Through sparse dialogue and series of glances and withdrawals the strain of their marriage is revealed though no clues are offered as to the cause.

So far, so miserable in both camps.

Gilles quietly wanders out for the night, for no more nefarious reason than to be away but, in his absence, the unthinkable happens. In a scene silent except for its harrowing score, a gang enters Gilles’ farm and his family dispatched in every standard and ghastly brutal way.

We learn very little else about his wife and children. I’m not sure we ever even hear her name mentioned. Their murders serve really only as a catalyst for the major portrait of the film – a man clobbered by grief, anger and trauma, played superbly by Nicolas Duvauchelle.

But how does Gilles’ story join together with our other protagonists and why do they each take a chapter lead? Over dinner Percy recounts events at Gilles’ farm to Tiny and Mona, assuming it to be some kind of gang initiation, similar to those he had known in the past. Percy is silenced on this subject but it seems he hasn’t quite emerged from prison with a clean slate. He is soon drawn back into gang culture with serious implications.

Contrary to Tolstoy’s opening line of Anna Karenina, ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ it appears to be the shared feelings of anger, loss, sorrow and misery that ultimately unite Gilles and Tiny. Their cultural and social differences are shown up, he confesses that he prefers beer to wine but his wife didn’t want him to become a boer. He asks Tiny if she likes Italian food. Yes, pizza, she says. There’s more to Italian food than pizza, he gently laughs back.

Nothing much more is revealed about their backgrounds but actually more personal information about them isn’t really needed as The Endless River plays out a relationship of separate yet shared grief. With very little dialogue, superbly nuanced acting from Roberts and Duvauchelle, accompanied by an exquisite score and key song from Americana-inflected folk duo Hidden Highways, the tension just keeps ratcheting to an ending that left the audience divided between applause and booing.

Excellent, gripping stuff.


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