Cypriot director Tonia Mishiali casts Frances McDormand look-alike Stela Fyrogeni in her feature debut about a housewife in an unhealthy marriage who starts daydreaming about revenge.
A Cypriot hausfrau hitting menopause finds that she’s had enough of the macho ways of her boorish husband in Pause (Pafsi), the striking directorial debut from writer-director Tonia Mishiali. Though the subject is a largely familiar one, this is a work of considerable tonal complexity, as it stirs moments of pitch-black humor and short and violent reveries into an otherwise austerely told tale of spousal strife that wants to smash the patriarchy with feats of cinematic derring-do. An East of the West title at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, this well-performed domestic drama should travel to other showcases, including — but clearly not limited to — festivals interested in debuting filmmakers and female talent.
Elpida (Stela Fyrogeni), who looks like a Mediterranean sibling of Frances McDormand, has been married to Costas (Andreas Vasiliou) for years and looks after his every need. But when the film opens, she finally looks after herself for a few moments as she visits her gynecologist (Marios Ioannou). Almost like something out of a Greek Weird Wave film like Dogtooth, the scene becomes increasingly absurd as the doctor rattles off the possible symptoms of menopause, a list that goes on and on and on before the medical professional finally concludes drily that, in short, there is “nothing to worry about.”
Elpida and Costas live in the same modest apartment and don’t interact more than necessary, with her cooking the meals they both eat at the kitchen table, in silence. After that, they retreat to the living room, where Costas turns up the TV for his sports programs as loud as he can, while Elpida watches violent movies on her own set, with headphones on. Mishiali stages everything as clinically as possible, to underline the alienation of the two, who aren’t even equal roommates, with Elpida looking after Costas’ every need.
This loveless union clearly can’t last, and that’s without taking into account the fact that Costas expects to be waited on and has a tendency to get very angry when he’s made to wait. Indeed, Elpida dreams of other opportunities, and Mishiali inserts her protagonist’s thoughts or daydreams several times, like when she imagines herself kissing the next-door neighbor, whom she spies always kissing his pregnant girlfriend whenever they leave or return to their apartment. The message is clear: She simply wants to be loved and have a partner who appreciates what she does for him.
On top of Elpida’s daydreams — which, perhaps influenced by the movies she watches, occasionally become violent toward Costas — Mishiali, who wrote the screenplay with Anna Fotiadou, introduces another disrupter in the form of Andrey (Andrey Pilipenko), an Eastern European painter who has arrived to paint the apartment building’s exterior. The narrative plays with the fact that it’s not always apparent whether we are watching something that’s really happening or something Elpida is imagining, so it’s not immediately clear if the protagonist acts on her desire for physical contact with the ruggedly handsome handyman. Indeed, the two co-writers use a mix of reality and dreams throughout the film, especially in a final twist that’s facile but simultaneously richly deserved.
This means the depressing drama is pleasantly spiked with moments of black humor and wish fulfillment. There is also some outright comedy, courtesy of Elpida’s relationship with her overly chatty middle-aged neighbor, the widow Eleftheria (the bubbly Popi Avraam). Her friend’s adventures with surgery and her late husband provide some much-needed levity while also suggesting a way forward, as Eleftheria could be taken as a future version of Elpida, still living in the same apartment building but without a husband and with much joy in her life to replace him.
Though the screenplay, aided by the supple hand of editor Emilios Avraam, does a great job of shifting back and forth between reality and wishes and dreams, there is one crucial element that’s missing. Mishiali never provides a sense of how her main character got trapped in her marriage in the first place. One assumes the traditions of a patriarchic society are at least partly to blame, but it’s never stated outright. It is also not quite clear whether Costas has always been impossible to live with and Elpida has just put up with it for decades or whether that’s a more recent development. It would have given the character more depth if it were clearer what her past was like and how or if her marriage evolved over time.
As the long-suffering wife, Fyrogeni, a German-born Greek actress, gives a layered and touching performance that suggests a resilient woman is lurking underneath her often tetchy and clearly miserable exterior. Her real tragedy is that her determination to break free seems to lurk just beneath the surface but struggles to break through. Vasiliou is upsetting as the husband, whose unacceptable behavior is all the more frightening for feeling so normal and embedded in their daily lives.
The rookie director and her cinematographer, Yorgos Rahmatoulin — like quite a few here, an alumnus of the 2017 Cypriot drama Rosemarie — use a very rigid and composed mise-en-scene that throws into high relief the few moments their heroine takes matters into her own hands.
Production companies: A.B. Seahorse Film Productions
Cast: Stela Fyrogeni, Andreas Vasiliou, Popi Avraam, Marios Ioannou, Georgina Tatsi, Andrey Pilipenko
Director: Tonia Mishiali
Screenplay: Tonia Mishiali, Anna Fotiadou
Producers: Andros Achilleos, Stelana Kliris, Tonia Mishiali
Director of photography: Yorgos Rahmatoulin
Production designer: Lydia Mandridou
Costume designer: Christy Polidorou
Editor: Emilios Avraam
Music: Julian Scherle
Venue: Karlovy Vary Film Festival (East of the West)
Sales: Film Republic
No rating, 96 minutes