Credit: First Look
by Michael Sicinski Featured Film

Arthur&Diana — Sara Summa [First Look ’24 Review]

March 18, 2024

The names of the two main characters in Sara Summa’s debut feature appear rather ambiguously on the screen. Summa’s opening titles are handwritten in partial cursive and look as though they were made with a crayon or a piece of chalk. And although the names of Arthur (Robin Summa) and Diana (writer-director Summa) are fairly close together, they don’t immediately suggest the total enjambment of the film’s official title, Arthur&Diana. This is all quite fitting, since Arthur&Diana is all about proximity and distance, the ways that family can be smothering but also deeply reassuring in a complicated world.

Most of the film consists of a road trip. Arthur has driven from Paris to Berlin to pick up his older sister and her two-year-old son Lupo (Lupo Pietro Summa) in order to drive them to a family gathering in Italy. The geographical and interpersonal distance between Diana and Arthur is disrupted by the close quarters of the beat-up family Renault wagon, and Summa’s direction alternates between claustrophobic close-ups and extreme long shots of the car wending its way through European highways. At first, one gets the idea that Diana is the responsible adult and Arthur the impulsive young screw-up, but this is a family-movie trope that Summa seems intent on complicating. While it’s true that Arthur impulsively brings a stranger, Zora (Livia Maria Antonelli), into the fold after chatting her up at a stop at a gas station, we discover that she fits in about as well as anyone else on this trip.

Summa made Arthur&Diana while studying at Berlin’s DFFB, the film school that has been ground zero for the so-called Berlin School of filmmaking. At different times, Christian Petzold, Angela Schanelec, and Thomas Arslan have all been on the faculty there, and while Arthur&Diana displays certain formal affinities with the DFFB directors of her generation, it’s also a marked departure from them. Like Petzold, Summa adopts a well-worn genre (in this case, the road movie) to tinker with its basic assumptions. And like Schanelec and to a lesser extent Arslan, she throws the viewer into the deep end, narratively speaking. Past events, deceased family members, and long-term grudges are alluded to but never specified, leaving the viewer to focus on tone and mood rather than clear exposition.

But probably the most notable element in Arthur&Diana is its casually polyglot approach to language. Diana’s husband Patrick (Benjamin Schwinn) is German, and everyone speaks to him in that language. Once Arthur, Diana, and Lupo are on the road, conversation is conducted in French. Then, when they arrive in Italy, everyone makes an almost imperceptible switch into Italian. While this multilingual aspect pertains to Summa’s own biography — she was born in Italy, raised in France, and went on to study in Germany — it also serves as a kind of metaphor. Language itself doesn’t produce divisions within the family, but differing values and life choices do, all of which have accumulated over the years into frustration and bemusement. Like the use of camerawork, the frequent code-switching in Arthur&Diana toys with our expectations. Where we might expect conflict, we instead see smooth interaction, and vice versa.