Credit: Linda Venturini
by Michael Sicinski

The Permanent Picture — Laura Ferrés [NF/ND ’24 Review]

April 11, 2024

There’s really nothing wrong with The Permanent Picture, the debut feature from Catalan director Laura Ferrés. It features two skillful lead performances, is exceedingly well shot, and spins a tale that, while not entirely plausible, succeeds in communicating intergenerational melancholy, the emotional distance between youthful impetuousness and late-life regret. This film suggests that Ferrés has drunk deep from her film school education, and that she is likely to produce distinctive cinema in the future.

Despite the faint praise, there really isn’t anything wrong with The Permanent Picture. It’s just that it’s immediately recognizable as a 2020s festival-circuit film, bearing nearly all the standard markers of that phenotype. Camera movement is limited, but Ferrés meticulously frames each shot to lend a sad geometry to its mundane environments. The actors almost all exude the hangdog, post-Buster Keaton stillness we observe in droll international comedies, particularly those of Aki Kaurismäki and Martín Rejtman. And the single performance least tamped down by that approach is the one which intrudes on the main character’s orderly world, inducing the small spasms of chaos that drive the film forward.

The Permanent Picture begins with a past-tense prologue in which a very young girl, Antonia (Saraida Llamas), has a baby. Incapable of handling the responsibility, she bolts, leaving the child to be raised by her grandmother, Milagros (Mila Collado). We then cut to nearly 50 years later. The child, Carmen (María Luengo), is living an uninspired life, working as a casting director for an ad agency. She is tasked with finding ordinary people to appear in political spots for an unnamed party running on the slogan of cambiar (“change”). In keeping with this bland mandate, Antonia is told to find subjects who are “authentic… but not too authentic.”

Outside a market she encounters Antonia (Rosario Ortega), a feisty, at times aggressive drifter who makes her own perfumes and hawks them in the street. After a scuffle, Antonia slowly becomes a presence in Carmen’s life, the friend and even, maybe, the mother she never had. Viewers are aware that Antonia is indeed Carmen’s long-lost mother, and so the muted drama of The Permanent Picture is predicated on whether, and when, Carmen and Antonia will make the discovery themselves. With her hard-bitten demeanor and impertinence toward bourgeois niceties, Antonia helps Carmen’s personality emerge, as both women try to figure out how the other one may fit into their life.

The Permanent Picture is pleasant. It exemplifies restraint, avoids sentimentality, and even elicits a chuckle or two. But it does seem to be the product of an artist who, like Carmen, is still trying to find her own voice. It’s a comfortable film, a familiar one. We typically discuss “comfort” when addressing more popular genres, like rom-coms or biopics. But today, “art film” is often just as formulaic. It’s easy to see why grant panels and festival programmers appreciated The Permanent Picture. It fits like an old shoe. If that’s what you want, here it is.

Published as part of New Directors/New Films 2024.