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Requiem for Mrs. J | 2017 Berlin International Film Festival Review

The Day the Music Died: Vuletic Courts Comedy of Frustration with Shades of Thanatos

If anyone comes close to conjuring comedy from the Kafkaesque, it’s Serbian director Bojan Vuletic with sophomore title Requiem for Mrs. J, the title itself an off kilter homage to the infamous Frank Kafka protagonist referred to as K, a mistaken initial which is the source of one of several significant dilemmas in bureaucratic miscommunication in this droll socio-political commentary. Bleak doesn’t begin to describe the register of the lead performance from famed Serbian actress Mirjana Karanovic as the titular madam looking to put her affairs in order for what she plans as her last week of life on earth. Despondent and sans a sympathetic soul with whom she feels she can commiserate, planning for a future in which she has no role to play proves to be unimaginably frustrating for the emotionally numb woman.

Her husband having died a year prior, Jelena (Karanovic) is ready to call it quits, unbeknownst to her remaining family members, including a mother-in-law who has all but faded into the wallpaper, and two daughters who at worst harbor feelings of incredible resentment for the matriarch and at best feel a simmering annoyance at her general refusal to leave the house over the past twelve months. Now, on the eve of holding a ceremony of remembrance for her late husband, Jelena plans on killing herself right afterwards. As she arranges for the mason to have her photograph placed alongside her husband’s on the tombstone, she makes moves to terminate her life insurance policy, return a borrowed armchair to a neighbor, and renew her health insurance card. However the matters of her insurance issues create a complicated series of moves requiring Jelena to prove she has been a salaried employee for the past years despite have been laid off. Her now bankrupt employers, however, don’t have their affairs in order, and a typo regarding her middle initial (which should be K and not J) causes further delay. Meanwhile, Jelena’s eldest daughter has some surprise news she’s been hiding from her mother.

Karanovic, who appeared in both of Emir Kusturica’s Palme d’Or winners (When Father Was Away on Business, 1985; Underground, 1995), exudes a haggard stoicism in her determination to plow through one decidedly strenuous week. Everyone except her family, who has apparently grown use to her moroseness, immediately senses something isn’t quite right, perhaps most bluntly addressed by the man who Jelena buys a pistol from to do the dirty deed. She explains the purchase as something she needs for her daughter’s upcoming wedding, but he explains the right kind of overdose on the right kind of pills works wonders. When her younger daughter, who gleefully exercises any opportunity to cuss, announces her older sister is secretly pregnant, Jelena seems to have all the more reason to cash out her life insurance for the benefit of her surviving family. In one particularly distressing sequence, older daughter Ana (Jovana Gavrilovic) berates the uselessness of Jelena after her mother walks in on her engaged in intercourse with her fiancé.

Jelena’s impending death seems to be necessary for there to be room for the younger and more vibrant (like an ode to The Ballad of Narayana), but Vuletic metaphorically implies there is life for the older woman yet. Having picked the stationary car, a symbol of her dead husband, as her final resting place (so to speak), one of the daughters mysteriously notes someone has filled the air in the previously flat tires. Morbidly funny, Requiem for Mrs. J is a cruel smirk of a film narrative, a tireless, beaten down journey which allows for one beautiful, brief moment of levity promised in the dirge of its title.

★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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