Sometimes movies can transport their audience to another place, and the best film experiences are often unexpected. Thus it is with Tea with Madame Clos, an absolutely charming Australian documentary screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival.
Filmmaker Jane Oehr spends four or five years in intermittent discussion with the ageing Madame Clos, who is approaching her century but still actively involved in the life of her rural French village and its inhabitants. What emerges is a remarkable picture of the life of an entirely unremarkable woman, while touching on the effect of change over time and particularly the ravages of ageing.
It is clear the filmmaker loves her subject, with Oehr content to linger while Clos retells the same anecdote she told the year before, or hands out the mints to passers-by at her window in the manner that has led to her being referred to as ‘Madame Vichy’ (after the Vichy mint). It isn’t her obvious affection that makes her film stand out, however, but more the way a picture develops of Clos’ progressive impairment.
Oehr approaches her subject with great honesty, never seeking to avoid the obvious decline in Clos’ mental and physical functioning, but rather inviting her audience to watch a woman ageing with dignity and respect. The result is a moving film, with more than one surprise in store.
The setting is rural France and the village and its inhabitants are brought vividly to life through the prism of Madame Clos’ experiences and stories. The scenery is often spectacular, and more than once this film could have passed for travel advertisement. Although the use of piano accordian as soundtrack appears contextual given the hobby of one of Clos’ neighbours, more than once it jars with the relatively quiet on-screen action.
Shot on digicam, this is not a film designed to look its best projected on a large screen, and yet somehow the film transcends its limitations in sound design and cinematography in the way that the best documentaries can. One forgives the slightly blurry footage when confronted by the wit and grace of the subject.
Tea with Madame Clos is a moving and rewarding experience, and one entirely unsought amidst the usual sea of dysfunction and animosity that afflicts the MIFF program. Highly recommended.Rating: