The Wait (L’attesa)

Italy (2015) Dir. Piero Messina

Grief often makes people behave oddly and make decisions that aren’t necessarily right or make sense, but we give them a pass out of consideration for their loss. But when an act of deceit is deliberately perpetuated questions need to be asked.

Based loosely on the works of Italian writer Luigi Pirandello, The Wait opens with the closing moments of a funeral held in a Sicilian church, burying the son of French born divorcee Anna (Juliette Binoche). That night Anna takes a phone call from a girl asking for Giuseppe so Anna invites her to come to her villa.

The caller is Jeanne (Lou de Laâge), Giuseppe’s French fiancée whom Anna has never met. For her own reasons, Anna doesn’t tell Jeanne Giuseppe has died, instead claiming the funeral was for her brother. Anna uses this time to get to know Jeanne better as she waits for Giuseppe to return home for the Easter weekend.

In the hands of Hitchcock this would have been a labyrinthine psychological thriller but with first timer Piero Messina at the helm, drawing heavily on the style of his mentor Paolo Sorrentino, this is a sombre and dour arthouse affair that puts visual delight over story and content.

Being unfamiliar with the source material from Pirandello I cannot comment on what has or hasn’t been adapted but four writers worked on the screenplay, including Messina, which is staggering considering the paucity of dialogue and reliance on pristinely shot but deliberately played out longueurs to keep the film going.

Essentially, there are roughly twenty-minutes of story eked out to 95 minutes, based on a flimsy premise that initially has us wondering whether Anna is reacting out of grief and wanting to protect Jeanne from heartbreak. But as the charade continues over the next two days and Anna’s evasiveness whenever Giuseppe’s whereabouts is raised being glaringly obvious, Jeanne looks like a complete idiot for not suspecting deceit.

Jeanne is typically the only one in the dark, with Anna’s brooding groundskeeper Pietro (Giorgio Colangeli) loitering with intent to get Anna to come clean about Giuseppe to Jeanne. Like a horror mystery, Pietro leaves the house half way through the film yet alarm bells still don’t ring for Jeanne, nor do the voicemails she continues to leave on Giuseppe’s phone despite being at his home.

Adding further curiosity to Anna’s behaviour is the aforementioned mobile which is now in her possession, containing the revelatory voice messages from Jeanne giving Anna a one-sided idea of the girl her late son is involved with. Jeanne is certainly something, almost managing to convert two gay men she meets while swimming and brings home for dinner.

So where is this all heading? That is the major downfall of this film. The first two acts are all tease, piling on the questions but leaving no sufficient clues to make an educated guess as to what the answers may be. The third act takes a surreal, possibly even sinister and eerie turn but really resolves nothing, although one somehow doesn’t expect it to.

Despite moving at a glacial pace, there is a slight buzz as the enigmatic Anna seems on the cusp of being revealed a pathological manipulator and her bereavement has triggered her dark side based on what she heard in the voice messages. Once the ice has been broken, Anna reveals she was the first woman in Sicily to get a divorce, and started a trend among the other women when she wasn’t struck down by God!

But this is the closest we get to finding out more about Anna, the rest is left to the actions and her curious, often suspicious distant looks from afar towards Jeanne. We can create the beginnings of a psychological profile based on this but cannot claim to fully understand Anna, especially after the twists in the final act. The early benefit of the doubt we give her due to her bereavement is gone by then and genuine fear creeps in.

Jeanne is also very thinly drawn. A young modern, independent woman, she genuinely appears to be in love with Giuseppe and has a luminous presence about her that attracts other people she is very aware of, making the gullibility all the more implausible. From the voicemails, something not disclosed happened the previous summer to jeopardise her relationship with Giuseppe, which may also explain Anna’s actions.

It’s all so enticing and there is a great itch swelling as each laboured moment passes heading towards the conclusion but as alluded to earlier, we get twenty minutes of symbolism, surrealism and possibly oneiric delusions instead of answers, leaving us with a half told story bereft of a satisfying ending.

Sorrentino’s influence is manifest in Messina emulating his visual style with enigmatic, carefully composed tableaux and lusciously cinematography. The underwater scenes are mercurial in their vividness, juxtaposed by the sparse, bleak atmosphere of the chiaroscuro aesthetic during the mourning period. A public parade with the army of people dressed similar to Klansmen is suitably epic in scale despite making no sense.

As ravishing as the imagery is, an air of indulgence is pervasive in scenes that linger too long or focus on the quotidian instead of progressing the story, possibly testing the patience of some viewers, not to mention the chilling silence that accompanies a vast proportion of the screen time.

Luckily, the spellbinding performances from the two leading ladies compensate for the flaws in the script. To no surprise, Juliette Binoche delivers a perceptively raw and ethereal essaying of Anna’s grieving and mysterious treatment of Jeanne. Lou de Laâge in a career making turn provides the innocence to Anne’s duplicity, climaxing with a scene of devastating heartbreak.

The Wait shows Messina has much to offer cinema but needs to temper his indulgences when working with a story of such compelling psychological intrigue as this one. Visually ravishing, beautifully acted but its aimless structure limits appeal beyond the arthouse crowd.