Next Projection: Made In Canada Review: Looking Is The Original Sin

Made In Canada Review: Looking Is The Original Sin

Cast: Katie Boland, Maria del Mar, Jayne Eastwood
Director: Gail Harvey
Country: Canada
Genre: Drama

Editor’s Notes: Looking Is The Original Sin will have its world premiere at the Montreal World Film Festival on August 23th with an additional screening on August 24th.

Greatness can be a gift as well as a curse. To be truly great, one must invest oneself fully in their work, must give up a large part of their soul for what they do. Selfishness is a negative trait, but in many ways it is an inherent aspect of greatness. The annals of cinema are full to the brim of “great man” stories that focus on the triumphs and downplay the collateral damage left in the wake of titanic achievements. Looking Is The Original Sin is a rare gem then, distinct in two ways: This is a story of a “great woman” and one focused intently, almost exclusively on the damage that strive for excellence can cause. Based heavily on the life of Diane Arbus, the film follows Helene (Maria Del Mar), a photographer dealing with depression and instability, and her tumultuous relationship with her daughter Anna (Katie Boland, Gail Harvey’s real-life daughter), who also finds herself adrift. The two ruin each other even as they strive to save each other, and the film is smart about the compromises they make and the validity of their choices.

This is a story of a “great woman” and one focused intently, almost exclusively on the damage that strive for excellence can cause.

Early in the film, Helene tells Anna, in a video she makes for her benefit, “You know I love you. I’ve always loved you. But I have to love life too.” That Helene loves her daughter is never in question throughout the film; it is how she loves her, and how she cannot, that drives the narrative. Helene refuses to feel guilty about her need to live her own life, and ultimately, she refuses to let being a mother stand in the way of being an artist. This is a difficult choice to watch, and its portrayed as a devastating one for both Helene and Anna, yet the film is also wise about how it may not be the wrong one. It’s certainly not the best choice for Helene as a mothering strategy, but she is consumed with larger concerns, and while she finds herself wracked with guilt at her own failings, she will not let that guilt stop her from making her art, even if it destroys her mind and her family in the process.

Helene is the perfect portrait of an artist fascinated with her own openness and in love with her self-constructed freewheeling spirit. She speaks into the camera in the video she makes (which crops up throughout the film) as if she is dropping truths far more profound than she is, yet she sells every nugget as a timeless truth, and in the moment, she believes it. She covers up her weaknesses by pretending to see them as strengths, but she can never bury the truth deep enough to make it disappear. Del Mar gives a wrenching performance, so achingly earnest it can be hard to watch but it remains almost impossible to turn away from. She plays Helene as a woman who knows the consequences of every decision she makes and realizes that if she ever stops to consider them for too long, she’ll drown. In lesser hands, Helene would be played as painfully aloof or coldly unloving, but Del Mar is neither. She plays the artist as an open wound trying to be her own scab, a woman driven by her demons even as they threaten to consume her fully.

Writer-director Gail Harvey has crafted a painfully beautiful portrait of a toxic yet vital mother-daughter relationship and a film that smartly plays both sides of a complex debate.
Boland is similarly excellent as a young woman desperate to understand her mother and terrified of losing her. Anna is forced to be a mother but cannot completely shed her status as a daughter. She tries to follow in her mother’s footsteps even as she makes her own tentative movements toward forming her identity. The relationship between the two forms the cornerstone of the film and provides its shattered soul. Each woman is on her own journey, but the two are linked together in ways that may destroy them, or may provide each her own salvation.

Writer-director Gail Harvey has crafted a painfully beautiful portrait of a toxic yet vital mother-daughter relationship and a film that smartly plays both sides of a complex debate. Nothing in Looking Is The Original Sin is reductive about the questions of work-life balance for Helene, but that conflict doesn’t swallow up the film, either. There’s an artful plotlessness here, and the movie unfurls naturally from start to finish. Things happen, but they never feel constructed; there’s a story, but its one that feels drawn from life rather than constructed by the writer. This is a smart screenplay that feels writerly only when Helene is flattering herself as brilliantly introspective. Otherwise, the script seems to disappear entirely as only the best can. Similarly, Harvey has an uncanny feel for mood, balancing close-ups and medium shots in a way that shows a mastery of perspective, and utilizing a handheld shot better (if perhaps no more originally) than I’ve seen in quite some time.

The soundtrack to the film is also stupendous, a series of crushingly gorgeous songs that might feel on the nose if they weren’t so perfectly deployed. Each needle drop feels timed to the tee, and each song elicits exactly the emotion it seems intended to convey. Often in film the musical montage can feel painfully contrived or overdone, but these feel wonderfully paced and excellently placed for supreme emotional impact.

Looking Is The Original Sin is quietly devastating, an emotionally resonant film that treats a complex subject matter with suitable weight. Carried by two phenomenal performances, the film tells the story of their relationship, but it also allows each to develop her own sense of self along the way. Helene is a hard character to love, but in Del Mar’s hands she is an easy one to understand, and its impossible not to empathize with her. Anna, on the other hand, is easy to sympathize with, but Boland also allows her to be self-destructive, impulsive, and flawed. In telling the story of this mother-daughter pairing, Gail Harvey has created a compelling portrait of an artist torn between devotion to her art and to her daughter, a shattering story of a strained relationship, and a wonderfully observed look at a young woman coming into her own, weathering bumps along the way. This is a great film, not afraid to look in places most others ignore, terrified yet somewhat resigned to what it will find there.

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