‘Armand’ Review: Renata Reinsve Shines In Halfdan Ullmann Tøndel’s Intense School Drama – Cannes Film Festival

Three years ago, Cannes audiences fell in love with Renata Reinsve, the titular star of Norwegian competition entry The Worst Person in the World. Chances are, they won’t be quite as well disposed to her character in this austere drama from fellow countryman Halfdan Ullmann Tøndel, grandson of Norwegian actress Liv Ullman and Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman. Tøndel’s lineage should give you a fair idea of what’s in store here, but, surprisingly, Armand doesn’t dig especially deep into the human psyche, finally falling into a strange no man’s land between intense character drama and jet-black comedy.

Reinsve plays Elisabeth, and as we suspect from the opening sequence, in which she puts the pedal to the metal down a leafy country road, Elisabeth is, literally, a drama queen, an actress still wearing the hooped earrings she needs to play her latest part. She has been summoned by Jarle (Øystein Røger), the headmaster at the school attended by her 6-year-old son Armand, but he refuses to explain what the problem is. In fact, when Elisabeth arrives in a thunder of designer clothes, Jarle delegates the task to one of his junior teachers, the well-meaning but insipid Sunna (Thea Lambrechts Vaulen). “If this blows over, it blows over,” he tells her, but it sounds like wishful thinking.

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There has, says Sunna, been an incident involving Armand and his best friend Jon, whose parents — Sarah (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) and Anders (Endre Hellestveit) — are waiting for Elisabeth to join them for a summit meeting. Judging by the look on Sarah’s face, it looks to be serious, and it is. Elisabeth is told that Jon was found crying in the boys’ changing room by the caretaker. At home, Jon confided in his mother that Armand had pinned him down, groped him, and — the allegation that Elisabeth finds the hardest to take in — threatened to anally rape him (“Where could he even get the idea?” she wonders).

It soon becomes pretty clear that Sunna is in this over her head, so Jarle joins the fray, along with the school’s nurse, Asja (Vera Veljovic). “More people, huh?” snorts Elisabeth, who suspects a kangaroo court is now in session.

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In the absence of the two boys, it becomes pretty clear that a he said/he said situation is in full swing, but things become a little murkier when it transpires that Sarah is also Elisabeth’s sister-in-law. Up to this point there are hints that Elisabeth is a fragile personality (“She’s been through a lot,” notes Jarle, trying to pour oil on troubled water), but soon the family secret is out: Elisabeth’s co-dependent marriage was turbulent and abusive, and came to a tragic end when Sarah’s brother killed himself. Sarah blames Elisabeth for that, and refuses to have any sympathy, suggesting that, being an actor, Elisabeth has a talent for creating drama in her life as well as on the stage.

Will we ever get to the bottom of this? Yes and no. Clocking in at just under two hours, Armand juggles more ideas than it can finally get to grips with, which doesn’t prove to be terribly satisfying in the long run. Its obvious antecedents include the likes of Roman Polanski’s Carnage or, more recently, İlker Çatak’s The Teachers’ Lounge, both films that exquisitely deal with truth and ambiguity. But when the ghost of Elisabeth’s husband enters the mix, Armand becomes something else, subtly shifting the focus from Elisabeth to Sarah, who, in her own special way, is another piece of work and just as difficult.

In that respect, Tøndel has created a sprawling film to absorb rather than follow studiously, and the opening section is especially evocative in that respect: the school is alive, its halls echoing with footsteps, and the smell of chalk dust hanging heavy in the air. Likewise, Reinsve shines as a striking anti-heroine, playing a brittle, broken woman with a marshmallow interior. But, by the end, Armand has spread out in so many directions that the ending leaves us hanging, not because it withholds the satisfaction of a tidy ending but because it raises enough questions about Elisabeth and Sarah to fill a whole other movie.

Title: Armand
Festival: Cannes (Un Certain Regard)
Director-screenwriter: Halfdan Ullmann Tøndel
Cast: Renate Reinsve, Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Thea Lambrechts Vaulen, Endre Hellesveit, Øystein Røger, Vera Veljovic
Sales agent: Charades
Running time: 1 hr 56 min

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