Reviews “Conte d’Amour” at Festival d’Avignon

Libération – July 16, 2012

The Crazy Cage
by René Solis

Markus Öhrn offers a circuitous and strangely disturbing filmed performance.

When you hear the distorted voice of a child cry “I’m hungry, I’m thirsty” while the father, having gone down to the cellar, is about to eat a hamburger, you tell yourself that the evening performance may turn out to be trying. Hardly surprising in view of the subject. Conte d’amour, a play written by Markus Öhrn, a Swedish artist, active in Berlin, is inspired by the Josef Fritzl affaire; Fritzl, the Austrian who during a period of more than twenty-four years kept one of his daughters captive in a cellar, all while raping her on a regular basis and giving her seven children.

A tarpaulin. Projected on a lateral screen while the spectators take their places, the first images also forebode the worst: you see an anonymous hand meticulously cement what you imagine is to be the prison wall. But you shouldn’t trust you premonitions: Conte d’amour is a funnier play than you might think. The horror is constantly kept at a distance. What you see and hear stays within the limits of the bearable, which is not the same as within normality. Also, you don’t distinguish what happens in the basement directly. The four performers play behind a heavy plastic tarpaulin; you can hardly discern their reflections and their movements. On top of this spuriously transparent cage there is a stage with a couch; the “official” home where the father sometimes emerges, surrounded by a diminutive fence – the garden of the house.

What you see of the events is filmed by two cameras, one stationary, one that the actors take turns holding. You see the images on two screens, placed side by side, the unchanging, tv-monitor shot of the garden, the subjective images of the yard. A device that remains the same within the three hours that it takes to perform Conte d’amour. Which, in no way makes it a dull play, not even monotonous.

Completely nuts, the father is nevertheless far from the cliché of a monster. He is the kind that will lower himself into the basement with a wire, pretending to be “a world doctor” parachuted over Africa. And who will involve his children in his foolish games: “nursing the wounded” after first having removed the wrapper of a band aid with tweezers, “feeding the starving” while stuffing their mouths by force with potato chips, emitting monkey howls while leaping about. Sex also springs from the realm of innocent play, rather than from some deliberate dark intention: here, the inflatable dolls play an important part, and the sex has more to do with infantile “smack the botty” games than actual intercourse.

This burlesque dimension is conveyed by the choice of actors, members of the theatre groups Institutet (Sweden) and Nya Rampen (Finland): the daughter-mother of her own fathers children is a young man in drag. The two children – the results of the incestuous relationship – are also boys, and this “homosexualisation” of the story is a way of creating a distance to reality: that which takes place in the basement really belongs to the farcical domain and is not a true reconstruction of the Fritzl affair.

Ravings. This is not to say that Conte d’amour does not make you uneasy; even though the scenes that take place inside the prison are rather comical, you constantly feel that you are witnessing things you were not supposed to see. Furthermore, the transpiring horrors are really quite familiar; the twisted psychopath is not a torturer out of some movie, but a guy who practice love excessively and gently lures his family into different states of madness and get them all to partake more or less willingly.

Perpetually oscillating between detachment and humanisation, Conte d’amour will have you fascinated in the end, which has also to do with the rhythm, slow and simultaneously structured by numerous micro-events, which the camera helps to underline. Markus Öhrn explains that for him “the duration is one of the most exciting things that the theatre offers. In front of a video installation in a museum, I can’t control the duration of peoples’ presence. Theatre, on the contrary, allows me to produce a certain temporality. I can keep the spectator in a zone where he begins to be susceptible to the more obscure things [. . .]. So I’m not afraid of the spectators being bored.” The director also talks about a “meditative atmosphere that will take hold of you” and about a “bubble in which you can easily let go”. Which describes the effect of his play perfectly.


Le Monde – July 22/23, 2012

Violence hits the boards
by Brigitte Salino

Rape and incest meet in Avignon. And the resultant questions: how are you supposed to account for their inherent violence? Are they possible to depict? Two directors, invited for the first time to participate at the festival, have chosen two very different ways of confronting these issues: Kornel Mundruczo, up until 25 July presenting Disgrace, an adapted version of the novel by J. M. Coetzee, the South-African Nobel laureate of 2003, and Markus Öhrn, who, 14-19 July, presented Conte d’amour, based on the case of Josef Frizl, the Austrian who for twenty-four years held his own daughter captive, conceiving seven children with her.

These two directors, both of them from abroad, have something in common; neither of them is a director in the classic sense: the Hungarian Mundruczo is first of all a film-director; the Swede, Öhrn, is an artist. They are representative of today’s theatrical scenes, where the different genres have been blending together for a long time, and a Europe where, in your work, you can move around, going back and forth between a village in the north of Sweden and Berlin, which is what Öhrn does. For Conte d’amour, the latter have assembled actors from two theatrical companies, one Finnish and one Swedish,  and who speak . . . German and English.

Consequently, we have two shows in the realm of surtitrage, where the festival have become the Promised Land since Hortense Archambault och Vincent Baudriller became its joint managers in 2004, generously opening it to foreign contributors and to new forms that can appear in the guise of extreme experimentation, like in the case of Conte d’amour.

During three hours and without intermission you sit in front of a device consisting of a giant two-levelled cube: below, behind an opaque curtain that allows you to glimpse but not to see them, the actors perform.  Above, on a vast screen, you watch them on film. Only one of them is visible in the flesh: the father, who masturbates himself with inflatable dolls on a settee before crawling, like an animal into a wooden chest which serves as the entrance to the cellar where his daughter is held captive.

Then you see him, down below, with his daughter and two of their children: a mute adolescent and a little boy who is on his back on the floor, rocking.

These roles are all tremendously well performed by these men, who hardly speak at all but sometimes sing.  They live indeed in a basement covered with cork; but they live there as a family, and they may sometimes express love for each other, or they may play with figurines, just as they may ask the father to “play at Thai woman”. This is where the violence comes into play, when Öhrn depicts the horror as something “ordinary”. It certainly was for Josef Frizl. But this reality is an irreducible part of the performance, which, in its turn, commits violence towards  the audience.

Nothing like this happens with Mundruczo, who nevertheless begins Disgrace with a long, appalling rape scene, which I will be careful not to describe, that of Lucy, David Lurie’s daughter, Lurie having lost his position as a university teacher because of a sexual affair with one of his students. In this adaptation of Coetzee’s novel, the violence is that of South Africa after apartheid, but even more the kind of violence that, mute and brutal, can only be expressed by the barking of dogs, the social and inner tension between existences. Mundruczo has assembled actors who has held roles in his films, Projet Frankenstein or Hard to Be a God, and has asked the director, Sandor Zsoter, to play the part of David Lurie.

They conjure up a dismembered body, trying to heal itself, like the situation and the set evoke the Poverty of South Africa or Hungary. And they are a perfect testimony to Mundruczo’s outlook on the world, Mundruczo who certainly does not hesitate to hit hard but who opens a field of reflection in the minds of the spectator, which changes everything.


Translation by Ninni Rosén