Lost in desperation: “Remember to Blink” at the goEast Festival of Central and Eastern European Film6 min read

 In Baltics, Review, Reviews

Tension runs high in Austėja Urbaitė’s brilliantly tailored debut feature Remember to Blink, which lures us into a paranoid trap of manipulative deception and toxic jealousy set against the backdrop of an idyllic French countryside.

Remember to Blink opens with a late dinner between a middle-aged French couple, Jaqueline (Anne Azoulay) and Leon (Arthur Igual) and a young Lithuanian student, Gabrielė (Dovilė Kundrotaitė), who has been invited to their home to help the couple’s two newly adopted Lithuanian children adjust to an unfamiliar environment. Jaqueline shows some concern about whether she will be a good mother, but she is quickly reassured by Gabrielė, who is under the impression that this couple will take great care of the well-being of their future children. But soon after the arrival of the young siblings Karolina and Rytis (Inesa Sionova and Ajus Antanavicius), it becomes clear that it will take a lot of effort to get the children to open up to their new parents. They seem distant and insecure about Jacqueline’s somewhat intrusive efforts to approach them in a maternal way, and in search of familiarity, they stick close to Gabrielė, who, as a fellow Lithuanian is able to create a closer bond with them. Feeling that control of the situation is slipping away as Karolina and Rytis keep their distance from their new parents, Jaqueline takes increasingly serious and desperate steps to isolate the siblings from anything associated with their previous lives, leading to an inevitable struggle for dominance that neither she nor Gabrielė want to give up.

Austėja Urbaitė, who has already made two award-winning short films, Etiudas in 2013 and Bridges in 2015, has managed, despite her young age, to delve into the deepest part of the human mind and immerse herself in sordid emotions to create a strikingly engaging film about human desires that, under certain circumstances, take on a darker shade. As the story unfolds, the audience begins to sense that Jaqueline may be lacking in maternal material, as a deterioration in the children’s treatment can be observed. The controlling and perfectionist aspects of her demeanour cause her to lose herself in emotions of anger, envy, and confusion, opening the cupboard with old skeletons hiding in it. Ready to immediately break the bond between the children and Gabrielė, she forces the siblings to do things they are obviously uncomfortable with — eating French food that is not to their taste, forbidding relaxed, playful behaviour at the table, and trying to get them to start communicating only in French, even though they have no knowledge of the language and Jaqueline previously seemed to enjoy the fact that the children would be bilingual. She goes so far as to change their names from Karolina and Rytis to Caroline and Romain, stripping them of their national identity. She also forbids Gabrielė to have any physical contact with the children. This is all the more painful as it is obvious that the desire to bond with Gabrielė is driven by an overwhelming need to be loved, to be treated like children with a loving mother, whom the patient and indulgent Gabrielė represents well.

Aside from the qualities that could easily make Jaqueline the story’s token villain, she cannot really be perceived that way, as her brutal methods can be interpreted as a desperate way of keeping the children with her and assuring herself that she deserves to be a mother. Gabrielė, too, is not without guilt, even if it’s presented in a more allusive way. Taking advantage of Jaqueline’s unstable condition, she clearly oversteps her role and positions herself as the children’s sole guardian, not without the rush of power that comes with the way the siblings cling to her. It is a tense, cryptic battle for power between two women with their own motivations that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats until the very end of the film.

Remember to Blink would not be so captivating if it did not depart from a strictly realistic structure. Urbaitė incorporates a mystical element into the story, which corresponds to the landscape of the natural surroundings around the country house where the film’s main events take place. We are introduced to this by Leon, who remains overshadowed by his wife throughout the entire film. In the first scenes, before the children arrive, Gabrielė has time to explore the area where she’ll spend the next few weeks. She comes across Leon working on a mosaic of one of the Gorgons, the three sisters of Greek mythology with coiling snakes for hair and the ability to turn onlookers to stone. She expresses her admiration for the art, but Leon scolds her for being too close to it to fully appreciate its beauty. The comment resembles the film’s title in both Lithuanian, Per arti, directly translated as Too Close, and in English, Remember to Blink, and its message can be carried throughout the film, ambiguously interpreted.

The theme of the Gorgon is prolonged by Gabrielė via the detailed story she tells the siblings. In her version, the Gorgon is a witch who is able to make everyone who looks at her turn into a stone, with the exception of a young boy. The boy was locked up in a tower, but he was allowed to go out into the town for half an hour each day. During this time, he listened to the hearts of the frozen people and collected mirrors in the hope that the Gorgon could turn herself to stone by looking at them. The story cuts off here, with the second part being told after an unsuccessful attempt to speak to the siblings’ real mother by telephone. Gabrielė tells the siblings that they can say all the bad things that the Gorgon has done to them into the phone, so that the angels can come out of the sea and save them. In the finale, Gabrielė sits on the couch in total darkness, watching a television programme that shows the still image of a sea, with the two children sleeping on her lap on either side of her. With her quiet pose and impenetrable face, she creates an unsettling example of sheer, unconstrained power. Does she see herself as one of the angels of the story? Or does she feel like a failure for not getting the real mother to intervene? These are the open questions to which the director does not provide definitive answers.

Remember to Blink is a compelling watch for those who like their psychological dramas to be multi-layered and devoid of one-dimensional characters. This challenging story shows what happens when untreated trauma and deep-seated resentments take over, and with a dash of toxic power and control, it’s a twisted, terrifyingly disturbing portrayal of people succumbing to their lowest weaknesses.

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