How is a child’s life different from that of adults today? What is it like growing up around stimuli, in a world that is always-online, and with varying degrees of supervision? Is complete safeguarding even possible? These are questions contemporary cinema has been asking a lot in the last few years. Many classroom dramas, including 2023’s The Teacher’s Lounge, have explored complex ways the in-and-out-of-school dynamics intertwine, usually through the prism of a single incident. Armand, by Halfdan Ullmann Tønde, opts for that micro-as-macro approach and refuses to pass any judgment. As a result the film stays in this moral limbo between truth and lie, accusation and defense, instead zooming into its characters’ psychological states. Elisabeth (Renate Reinsve) has been summoned to an emergency parent-teacher meeting after her six-year-old son Armand is accused of crossing boundaries with his classmate Jon. What actually happened, we do not know. 

Armand is a first feature for the 34-year-old Norwegian director (and grandson of Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann), whose short Fanny has been nominated for the country’s national film award. It screened as part of this year’s Un Certain Regard selection, the promising launch of what will probably be a long festival run thanks to the (expectedly) brilliant Reinsve, whose Elisabeth is at the film’s heart. Shot empathetically and on beautiful 16mm, Armand is a tribute to the powerhouse female characters of Bergman and Cassavetes: those who dance while the world falls apart around them. 

The decision to never show the children recontextualizes the plot outside some perceived framework of pedagogical concerns. Though Armand takes place over one afternoon in an elementary school, it is more invested in the underlying drama between the parents, their children becoming more or less surrogates for the tense undercurrents in a relationship. Still, the film takes time to reveal any kind of background on characters, starting from Elisabeth. It is through whispers that we learn she is an actress who’s fallen out of grace after her husband’s death, perhaps suicide. Through most of the film Reinsve is unreadable––even when she’s overtly expressive and at times hysterical, her motivation remains unknown––a clever move that benefits from her rise to fame after winning Cannes’ Best Actress award for The Worst Person in The World

It’s great to see Reinsve in a role that toys with her own stardom, and she is the one who makes the film take off, whatever its uneven pace and lack of interior logic. There are a couple of sequences––in one, she dances with a janitor; in the other, she inspires a public lynching-turned-orgy––that serve little-to-no narrative purpose: like punctures in the film’s realism, they defy the logic that has been set up. Frustrating as they are, there is certainly a spark of pure genius that flashes for a second or two before extinguishing, the experimental feel to them too weak to support Reinsve’s gravitas much longer than that. Armand nevertheless manages to show some of Tønde’s potential for working closely with a lead actor through various psychological states and making it look compelling as possible, whenever possible. The film may not leave any deep marks or make you consider parenthood in a new light, but it still constitutes an auspicious debut. 

Armand premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival.

Grade: C+

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