SIFF Film Review – Vanity



If you’re going to die – and who isn’t? – Switzerland sounds like a pretty good final stop.  In addition to the alpine landscape, chocolate and high standard of living (*that you’d be leaving behind), the famously neutral nation has one of the world’s most progressive euthanasia policies, enabling the seriously ill to die with as much dignity as demise affords. This permissive policy forms the backdrop for the French-language melodramedy Vanity – screening at SIFF – in which an elderly architect attempts Christmastime assisted suicide in the garish hotel he co-designed in the mid-1960s with his late wife. Over the extenuating course of what should have been a short, dark night of the soul, he forms an unlikely friendship with the likewise-aging Spanish-born suicide technician and a Russian rent boy.

Director Lionel Baier’s seventh film takes its name from the artistic feature of the vanitas, a reminder of death. Specifically, it references Hans Hoblien the Younger’s 1533 painting The Ambassadors, a portrait of two elaborately-clothed diplomats and an oval squiggle that – if one squints from just the right angle – visually becomes a skull. The original is in London’s National Gallery; a copy hangs over our protagonist’s would-be deathbed. Its appearance in Vanity encapsulates the movie as a whole in both flattering and unflattering ways: the picture is an effective memento of mortal frailty, while its use is mildly idiosyncratic but also kind of obvious.

Vanity Movie Still 1

At its best, Vanity is a morbid hang-out film in which nobody says much, its low-stakes relationships recalling the eminent likability of The Station Agent (2003). While the characters are at times prickly, the actors’ presences exude warmth and are easy to want good things for (I especially hope Ivan Georgiev, who plays the prostitute, goes on to success in other roles). Their interactions play out against a dull space that’s vividly-realized. The hotel’s cramped rooms – illuminated by harsh fluorescent lighting – are decorated in the faded colors of a presently unfashionable era. Rooms are separated from other rooms by outdoor walkways; the hotel’s vacant Hollywood-themed pub separated from the rooms by a parking lot (things might pick up later if the lights stay on!); the illuminated city lights twinkling down the hillsides in the distance. The protagonist built the place. Both he and his creation were made for other times. As with the use of The Ambassadors, the visual expressionism is effective and blatant.

Vanity’s dry sensibilities are part of the same European cinematic geography as Sweden’s recent Force Majeure (2014) and Iceland’s Rams (2015). All three films layer emotional claustrophobia with snowbound isolation. While billed as comedies, they might more aptly be described as melodramas more lightly-toned than their bleak subject matter, suffused with a sense of awkward, nervous humor that occasionally punctures the surface. Thematically and structurally, however, Vanity feels the slightest of the three. Force Majeure and Rams are deliberately paced, but lay groundwork for subsequent tension through strong inciting incidents – respectively, a father’s cowardly decision during a minor avalanche on a ski trip; and an impending sheep culling to a herd jointly owned by two estranged brothers.

Vanity Movie Still 2

An old man making a suicide bid amid strangers, it turns out, isn’t a particularly dramatic hook in and of itself. Little is socially at stake, as the characters’ key relationships are not amongst each other. The audience is invited to trust their expressions, words, and silences speak to meaningful absences on screen and in their lives.  While the three leads hold the weight of the immediate situation effectively, however, Baier appears better at coaching his actors than he and co-writer Julien Bouissox are at crafting dialogue for them. Vanity is effective as film of omission, in substance and technique. It stumbles when it fills silence with generic backstories, communicated through expository monologues, which prompt limited reflection from (or consequence for) the characters.

Vanity further shares some of its tone, plot and themes with the likewise entertaining-but-flawed Swiss luxury retreat-set Youth (2015). To Vanity’s credit and appropriate to the setting, it errs on the side of modesty, with its artist protagonists prone to make grandiose verbal claims universalizing their experiences aging and creating. Whatever larger statements it has to make are firmly rooted in its characterizations, and hopefully suggests that one of the great consolations of life is that nothing lasts, not even the bad stuff. Nonetheless, Vanity conflates the gravity of experiences via its myriad underdeveloped call-outs to relationships, life, death, choice, regret, loneliness, euthanasia, and the social and architectural and personal changes that occur over a lifetime. It suggests the weight that would lead three strangers to a decrepit hotel room on Christmas, but can’t give them (or us) much to do with it. As with its use of Holbien’s Ambassadors, the elements feel more like props than topics of exploration. If its garish hotel room is a microcosm of life, it’s an exceptionally fleeting one.

Altogether, Vanity is engaging while it lasts but doesn’t hold much hope for a long-term impression – much like life, I suppose.




Matt watches films to avoid working on his PhD in digital culture-type stuff in Nottingham, UK.

You can reach Matt via email.

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