Augmented by anamorphic techniques that comprise visual experimentation, writer-director Hanna Antonina Wojcik Slak creates a slow-burn film propelled by suspense and a sense of foreboding & dramatic music that talks about the sad saga of lost childhood. “Not a Word (Original title: Kein wort)” could have been just another movie about affluent parents ignoring their kids during a crisis. However, Slak’s mastery over her craft creates a palpable atmosphere where silence does most of the job.

Maren Eggert, playing the mother, Nina Palcek, and her son Lars, played by Joan Levin Nicolai, show such nuanced acting that this otherwise frustratingly stagnant exercise of grief never loses grip over you. When her teenage son Lars ends up in the hospital under suspicious circumstances, orchestra conductor Nina decides it is time for them to visit the family vacation home.

Hidden behind the group of boys Lars approaches after being ignored yet again by his mother is a photo memorial for a student. Nina and Lars leave and head to the island in western France, where they spend their summer vacation. In winter, however, the island is no vacation paradise but windy and cold. In the house on the beach, mother and son are exposed to each other, and Lars withdraws further every day. Misunderstandings multiply, and suppositions turn into suspicions: A dangerous confrontation ensues when a storm cuts the last connection to the mainland.

This film powerfully illustrates the complexities that can be present between a mother and her adolescent son and how there’s a thin line between love and hate. The dialogue is heartbreaking and realistic – the conversations between the two central characters are so authentic and well-written that they make you, as a viewer, gradually understand how they function together and eventually feel part of their relationship.

At the same time, the words spoken are so real and tragic that you feel like you’re being invasive of these relationship-defining moments. And the performances of the two central characters are so beautiful, with Maren Eggart’s performance already being right up in there amongst my favorite film performances of all time. It’s hard to believe that they’re not mother and son because the intense connection between them feels so honest.

Playing upon the orchestral music storyline, writer-director Hanna Slak aptly uses sound and music thematically to express the inner turmoil the characters are experiencing.  The opening tracking shot of the whirling drone piloted through the house by Lars runs counter to the classical music being played by the headset-wearing Nina at the piano. It may be an intelligent visual and sound presentation of the winning strife that exists. At that point, there are other instances, like during a climb on the island where an instrumental score swells the interior of Nina as she tries to urge her enthusiastic heading.

Not a Word (2023) 'TIFF' Movie Review
Maren Eggert and Jona Levin Nicolai in Not a Word (2023)

There are visual prompts as Nina and Lars barely share the same space; when they do, a physical void isolates them. The camera is classically controlled and moves in a composed fashion, whereas the naturalistic lighting and color palette deliver a well-polished picture. When hopeful gleams reveal themselves, the ingenious stylistic conceit of “Not a Word” is that the symphony is going on in her head – at first a work commitment, but subsequently giving shape to her relationship with Lars – and not anymore in harmony. The metaphor of the cold, minimalist interior of the  Berlin house doesn’t leave the two protagonists even when they visit the cold, sullen beach.

Whereas narratively vague, the wealthy embroidered artwork that ties “Not A Word” could be an awful investigation of the disguise of grief and the dangers of stoicism within the framework of colossal mental difficulty. The uncertainty gives rise to a certain skepticism within the gathering of people, especially relating to the plot that undermines most accounts. Most importantly, it questions the point of compromise in any relationship. It gets that compromise isn’t as if it were not a straight preparation but a patterned one. Slak employs the cyclical nature in her story approach to the film – which is organized. Despite the stolid nature of the film, it determines an over-the-top enthusiastic tone through its instrumental score.

The Mahler 5th Symphony applies overwhelming control over the tone of the film – once in a while, indeed, hoisting feelings past what’s spoken on screen. It easily changes from an appalling climate to one filled with frightfulness and an approaching sense of fate. This supervision is reflected in Nina’s fixation with control as a mother and a conductor, but she is incapable of working out any of it. The exhibitions possess a certain sense of edginess, yearning, and misery as it was advanced, underlined by Mathon’s unremarkably dull cinematography.

It demonstrates how betrayal can rear its head in very distinct ways and how different the reactions to those betrayals and lies are when experienced by mother onto son or by son onto mother, and also how the feeling of longing for closeness can so easily morph into frustration which can in itself turn into uncontrollable and misplaced hatred. But underneath all of that is a type of loyalty that is only present in a mother/son relationship.

“Not One Word” would make for a captivating mood piece. However, in arousing all the senses, it becomes a full-body experience, making Nina and Lars unable to feel completely unrelated. It has a sparse narrative to speak of beyond being a distillation of a mother trying to safeguard her son and attempting to mitigate her suffering. The filmmaker shoots for poeticism, and while his manipulated imagery is not too far away from minimalism, it is frequently stunning. The film delivers a profoundly haunting visual experience that untangles itself via a solemn and melancholic series of sequences.

Not everything works in “Not a Word” due to its heavy-handed treatment of symbols and clear lack of character development. There’s also a disappointing feeling that the 87-minute workout might do better with a few wise editing choices for a substantial impact.

★★

Not a Word (2023) was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Not a Word (2023) Movie Links: IMDb, Letterboxd
Not a Word (2023) Movie Cast: Maren Eggert, Gina Haller, Marko Mandic
Not a Word (2023) Movie Genre: Drama | Runtime: 1h 27m

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