I readily admit to adoring films of the ennui persuasion. I understand that for some such films are dull, but when successful (as in the work of Sofia Coppola for example) they can be wonderful meditations upon human existence. Unfortunately Departure is neither successful nor wonderful; in fact I found it actively irritating. At the risk of sounding churlish, I am struggling to think of another film that I have found so utterly annoying.
Bea (Juliet Stevenson), along with her reluctant son Elliot (Alex Lawther), is clearing out her French holiday home after the apparently inevitable breakdown of her marriage. In her emotional state and partly due to her inability to really connect with others, Bea is clearly distressed but forces herself to work on the house. Her insistence is a clear attempt to create a distraction from the growing realisation that, unlike the previous instances before, her marriage is really over this time.
Rather than comfort his mother, Elliot concerns himself with wandering poetically around the house, staring into space in a desperate attempt to appear interesting. Noticing his attractive neighbour Clément, he quickly establishes a relationship with him, all the time soliloquising and using every opportunity he can to demonstrate his wit and intelligence. Quite why Clément puts up with Elliot is never made clear, he only notes Elliot’s tendency to romanticise his actions once, and seems content to allow him to be utterly insufferable the rest of the time.
Elliot’s characterisation reminded me at times of a hyperbolic version of Harold from Harold and Maude, but whilst Harold, despite his enjoyment of histrionics, was always engaging and empathetic, Elliot is intolerable. He demonstrates no care towards his mother, wilfully ignoring her grief. He leaves her to suffer until he begins to view her as a rival for Clément’s affections. I understand that he is on the precipice of adulthood, but in his immaturity, is spoilt and brattish rather than endearing. I am not suggesting that all protagonists have to be likeable, but they at least have to be engaging. Elliot is simply not interesting and I felt no connection with his development or character. Even Bea, whose despair should simplistically create sympathy, is dull and unlikeable when given no narrative space. I simply did not care what happened to either of them and I saw no reason as to why I should.
Even the look of the film, which from the moody lighting and landscape vistas was obviously considered, is lacking, resulting in cliché (see Elliot’s purification and rebirth by water at the end of the film).
Despite this diatribe, the film should receive praise for both its acting (Juliet Stevenson in particular) and its progressive portrayal of LGBT characters. Elliot’s sexuality is never made into an issue, and indeed his sexuality is not the focus of the film, rather it is simply present.
Unfortunately, this is not enough to truly redeem the film and Elliot’s nature rather overshadows Bea’s own personal struggle and Clément’s difficulties at home. Both Bea and Clément make for far more interesting viewing, but they are simply not given the opportunity to truly develop. Ultimately, Departure feels like a missed opportunity.