The films of Canadian director Kazik Radwanski are freedom in its purest form, or the purest this particular medium can contain. Being the opposite of prescriptive, they sculpt themselves according to interpersonal dynamics that can otherwise be invisible, and by doing so, give shape to parallel emotional worlds, extensions of a protagonist’s psyche. That goes for Derek (Derek Bogart), the impulsive lead in Tower (2012), sleep-deprived gamer dad Erwin (Erwin van Cotthem) from How Heavy This Hammer (2015), and for the chaotic Anne (Deragh Campbell) whose quarter-life crisis makes a delightful whirlpool out of Anne at 13,000 ft (2019). The second collaboration between Radwanski, Campbell, and Matt Johnson following Anne premieres at the Encounters section of this year’s Berlinale and it is humbly named Matt and Mara.

Just as Mara (Campbell) is about to welcome students to her poetry class, she spots her old friend Matt (Matt Johnson) in the corridor. Her surprise shows in the way she can barely conceal a smile while setting up the room, the close-up on her profile leaving enough room to discern Matt’s blurry figure stumbling across to find a seat. After class, we get to meet the guest and quickly learn that he’s now a New York dweller and a published author with some success. Still, here he is, walking the streets of Toronto with Mara by his side, their history unknown. Mara, we see, is married; in brief sequences, we meet her husband Samir (Mounir Al-Shami) and their baby daughter Avery (Avery Nayman). Samir is an experimental musician, while Mara doesn’t really like music. Could this be the foreshadowing of an affair? 

Matt and Mara is, effectively, about Matt and Mara spending time: they hang out at shops and parties, and eventually end up taking a road trip to an out-of-town conference when Samir can no longer join. Tensions rise, but never to the boiling point. Instead the film abstracts their relationship in the most fascinating of ways. Rather than tease the impossibility of it all, what comes to the forefront is the impossibility of even imagining it. 

Radwanski hones his intuitive directorial skills into crafting a narrative out of these paradoxes of intimacy that bind the two. What grounds the abstraction is the chemistry Campbell and Johnson share, and the safety they are both equally unwilling to abandon. Matt acts, Mara reacts; to a certain extent, he “activates” her in a way her roles of a tutor, wife, and mother cannot. In a string of minor events highlighting their compatibility and clashes, it becomes less about the “will-they-won’t-they” than about exploring the boundaries of oneself in a controlled environment. Not exactly an experiment, but certainly a testing ground.

A woman shielded from her own desires, Mara is much more reflective when it comes to those of others. Perhaps being a writer in the confines of an academic tutor has taught her to observe the world and people in ways that transpose her introspection onto them, creating a gap between her and herself in the process. In that very gap, only an actor as intuitive as Campbell can locate a desire Mara herself doesn’t dare touch without having to articulate it in too-palpable ways. In a sequence where Mara shares the kind of character she wants to write––someone who doesn’t know themselves and fears a sudden collision with that knowledge––it’s her own predicament she names. But Campbell is light as a feather, her face sheer with excitement for exploring a character while Mara attempts to think of herself as exactly that: a character. There are roundabout ways to know oneself: by talking, through others, using mirrors, or in conversations with another as if they were a mirror. 

That’s exactly what Campbell and Johnson manage in the film’s concise runtime, bringing these people to life together. Each scene they share relies on both interventions and responses. The result is a captivating watch, making their relationship stretch like an elastic band as they laugh, argue, or banter. Rendering an immaterial push-and-pull the most tangible thing in a film deserves high praise.

Of course, such a sustained effect cannot rely solely on direction and performances; Radwanski’s regulars Nikolay Michaylov (cinematographer) and Ajla Odobašić (editor) temper the visuals to a less-invasive degree, making sure the camera has a calmer presence than it did in Tower or Anne, to give way to these emotional tensions between the players without relying on the privileges that subjective shaky shots can afford. Alternating between long takes and abrupt cuts also conditions a way of sculpting flows of energy between characters into tactile, solid bonds.

With all this at play, Matt and Mara conjures a very particular kind of magic: that of an emotional journey which is shared but never properly enunciated. In order to make this happen, Johnson and Campbell have to create a world that is simultaneously full of words––fitting for two people who live and breathe prose––and devoid of them. Thus Matt and Mara don’t get to enjoy a full-bodied narrative as a couple, but as a conjoined phrase. Matt and Mara will coexist in the scribbles of a crunched receipt from the dry cleaners, belonging together, literally and metaphorically, only tucked away between the pages of a book, safe and sound. 

Matt and Mara premiered at the 2024 Berlinale.

Grade: A-

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