It’s rare for the last ten minutes of a film to radically change your opinion of the movie at large, let alone your entire viewing experience, but in “Hold Me Tight” (“Serre-Moi fort”), which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, director Mathieu Amalric does precisely that. The preceding hour and a half is certainly rich and evocative thanks to a bravura performance by Vicky Krieps (“The Phantom Thread”), but the material is so disjointed that it impedes comprehension until the very end. Amalric cuts rapidly between scenes with no temporal or logical connection to each other, even seemingly swapping out actors for the same role (a choice that’s later clarified but only at the film’s conclusion). “Hold Me Tight” is likely a film that rewards viewers with repeat viewings; it’s difficult to evaluate it on the basis of its decision to withhold crucial information until the end. It’s a risky choice, to be sure, and if it pays off, it mostly does so because of the power of its lead performance.
Anchoring the film’s emotional center, Krieps plays Clarisse, a young mother of two who decides to leave her family behind in the opening minutes. She maintains a psychic connection to them; her daughter Lucie is a burgeoning piano prodigy, and through her radio, Clarisse imagines that she can hear her rehearsing. Her husband Marc (Arieh Worthalter) can also hear Clarisse’s voice, sharing in private jokes and murmuring conversations in the kitchen to their children’s bemusement. He’s doing his best to raise them in her absence, but even he struggles with the toll of single parenthood. Meanwhile, Clarisse lives a wayfaring existence on the road, trying to fill the void of both her family and a briefly-mentioned addiction with strangers in unfamiliar places.
The real circumstances of Clarisse’s separation from her family become uncertain, though, as Amalric blurs the lines between the real and the imagined in this fractured family drama. The resulting film is touching and emotionally rich while simultaneously inaccessible, foreclosing necessary information to the viewer. It’s a deliberate part of the film’s gimmick, which certain viewers may choose not to buy into—the gratification’s delay puts into question the value of its structure. Is its grand finale really worth 90 minutes of confusion? Still, it’s hard not to embrace the film as a poignant meditation on the disorienting, fractured nature of loss, particularly with the consideration of the last minutes of the film and Krieps’ standout performance, which is difficult to overstate.
Since her breakout role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Phantom Thread” (2017) as Daniel Day Lewis’ haute couture muse, Krieps has had steady work, even debuting another film at this year’s Cannes (Mia Hansen-Løve’s “Bergman Island”). She’s in rare form in “Hold Me Tight” as Clarisse, a tightrope walk of a performance that balances the raw pain of grief and the disorientation of mental illness and addiction. Voiceover is a cinematic tool that can get overused to grating effect, but Krieps’ voice echoes over the film with a haunting sadness, a missive that reaches across an infinite divide from a mother to her family. Yet Clarisse is not a simplistic sketch of a grieving mother, as more conventional fare might have had it; she remembers straining against the strictures of motherhood and marriage, admitting that at one point she “wanted to throw the kids out the window.” These feelings compound the guilt of separation, which Krieps illustrates powerfully.
Though its earlier acts are certainly disjointed, “Hold Me Tight” is certainly a technical feat, particularly thanks to the prowess of sound mixer Martin Boissau. Through frequent sound bridges and audio prelaps, Amalric creates the sense of a relationship that knows no distance, bridging the gaps between scenes with a fluid editing style. While we may be watching Lucie practice her scales, Amalric dubs in the sound of Clarisse’s voice, and the scene takes on a new level of intimacy, like a narrated home video. The scenes are fragmented, but that’s not to say that there’s no value in them, a slow-burn journey that takes its viewers between Clarisse and her family and poignantly allows her—and us—to watch her children grow up from afar. Such is the nature of grief, and though the power of viral meme-hood has thoroughly ironized the sentiment, “Hold Me Tight” reaffirms it: What is grief, if not love persisting? [B]