“Sometimes I wondered if we could survive in our own skin”
Whether you enjoy the film as a film or not, you cannot deny the excellence of Petra Costa and Lea Glob‘s Olmo & the Seagull as an experimentation in art form and emotional drama. It is a fiction born from reality. As Costa explains: a real couple and real baby within a fictional narrative. But that fiction is shot as though documentary, the actor and actress in question pulling from their own existential crises on the cusp of becoming parents to infer upon the characterizations of themselves that they play for the camera. Their relationship began on the stage a decade previously, so they’ve performed multiple couples with differing ideas of love caught in disparate eras. Some would say reality is merely one more such portrayal.
In that vein: what part of Costa and Glob’s film is real? Interestingly enough, even though I knew about the hybridization of styles, the beginning had me wondering if nothing was real at all. Even the opening depiction of Olivia Corsini and Serge Nicolai on stage practicing their new rendition of Chekov’s “The Seagull” appears false with close-ups and carefully constructed cinematography appearing as though everything was positioned for the camera and not the audience. From there we enter the couple’s bathroom—she inside peeing on a pregnancy test and he out reading the box’s instructions. We go back and forth watching as the conversation shifts locales. Maybe there are two cameras shooting coverage or maybe each side was filmed separately. Either way, it plays like fiction.
Only when Olivia’s entire world is rocked, (the play is picked up for a tour to New York and Montreal without knowing she is with baby, a development that introduces difficulties able to be overcome until the discovery of a hematoma forces her to bow out altogether), does the artifice get shaken. Suddenly the natural progression of plot is stopped as Olivia looks directly into the lens and answers a question posed by the director’s disembodied voice off-screen. “What role do I have in this story now?” It tells us that the film was supposed to be about an actress conquering pregnancy and life simultaneously, fearlessly pushing forward to make old life and new coexist as one. She is no longer in the position to do so.
Or at least it pretends she isn’t. Our belief in this being the real motivation for the film is blindly given because the instilling of a documentary device conditions us to see it as truth. But why can’t the exposition be false? For all we know the hematoma is made-up and Olivia continues to work and excel as they journey to New York and beyond until her baby bump is too large to hide. Maybe there were so few complications in real life that every struggle was conjured for the added drama. What would happen if Olivia had to choose between motherhood and art? What would happen to her relationship if Serge continued to work alongside a younger replacement performing Olivia’s role while she was under house arrest?
This added tension doesn’t have to necessarily change the way they act or how they feel as life evolves from a house of two to one of three, but it may augment those feelings. It can provide both Olivia and Serge the room to dig deep and find the humor and horror in their circumstance—emotions felt but buried because there wasn’t an arena to let them out. Adding in the claustrophobic nature of separating Olivia from the only world she’s ever known (theater) provides a psychological venue to bear her soul. In reality she can shrug, “But not much has changed.” In the film, however, she can scream into the abyss. She can share her isolation and sense of under-appreciation in shouldering the burden of incubation.
But just as we embrace these riveting scenes of Olivia and Serge getting under each other’s skin explaining where they are and what they must do to stay solvent financially and emotionally in the future, Costa and Glob press pause and give stage directions. “What if you were more this and you less that?” These two characters seconds earlier at the other’s throat are now laughing. Again: what is real? What’s captured in the moment? What’s reworked and refilmed as a comment on reality? What’s completely fabricated with no reference to Olivia and Serge at all? In the end we realize it doesn’t matter. Because whether or not the situations presented and the conversations had are spontaneous, the authentic performances explain that the emotions are.
You might think this push and pull would be tough to endure or even boring in its portrayal of faux “regular life,” but it isn’t. Costa and Glob wonderfully splice in montages with Olivia’s thoughts juxtaposed on top—thoughts of true feelings as this once vibrant and alive person seen in archival video is relegated into literally being nothing but a mother. That’s not to say she won’t get back to work afterwards or that she will follow her friend’s footsteps as they guilt her into believing choosing career over baby is wrong. The point of Olmo & the Seagull isn’t to share her decision because it has no bearing on yours or mine. Instead it presents the honest pain, sorrow, and bits of joy that process entails.