Credit: Film Movement
by Andrew Dignan Featured Film Horizon Line

Mother, Couch — Niclas Larsson

July 2, 2024

Primarily set in a single, sparsely-dressed location and embracing archness and theatricality, Niclas Larsson’s Mother, Couch could be mistaken for being based on a stage play. The film, in actuality adapted from the novel Mamma I Soffa by Swedish author Jerker Virdborg, unpacks a contentious family dynamic set off by a minor inconvenience that gradually spirals out toward absurdism, taking over the lives of its characters. While shopping at a sprawling, moribund furniture store, an 80-something matriarch (Ellen Burstyn, credited only as Mother) plants herself on a $2,000 couch and refuses to leave. No amount of cajoling, pleading, or threats of force will rouse her from her perch. Nor does there appear to be any specific reason behind her sit-in-style protest (if that is indeed what this is). When it comes to getting up and exiting the store, she comports herself like a modern-day Bartleby, the Scrivener: she’d prefer not to.

At the urging of the endlessly patient yet sphinxlike sole store employee Bella (Bones and All’s Taylor Russell), the woman’s three adult children are called in to try and intervene. First to arrive is shambolic middle son Gruffudd (Rhys Ifans), followed shortly thereafter by the family’s perpetually put-upon baby, David (Ewan McGregor), who’s cursed with competing obligations and an innate desire to be liked by everyone, which his family is all too willing to exploit. Eventually disaffected oldest sibling — we know this because she chain smokes cigarettes and drives an obnoxiously loud car — Linda (Lara Flynn Boyle) shows up to point out how stupidly everyone is behaving by not just calling 911. As David endures mounting indignities ranging from being chewed out over the phone by his exasperated wife, Anne (Lake Bell), to running out of gas to being stabbed in the hand by his own mother after trying to remove her from the couch against her will, it becomes evident he’s up against more than garden variety obstinance by an elderly parent. His plight becomes increasingly surreal while his persecution starts to feel almost Job-like. Or perhaps, in light of the fantastical direction the film ultimately goes in, Noah is the more appropriate biblical reference.

Mother, Couch all but demands to be read as a metaphor, and its intentions are both plainly obvious and clear as mud. As Freud might say, it all starts with the mother. Burstyn’s character, who spends the majority of the film in a ’60s style platinum wig, is an emotionally withholding gorgon who sets her three children, each sired by a different absentee father — the film struggles in vain to justify the casting of a diminutive American, a gangly Welshman, and an average-sized Scot as siblings; every time Larsson frames the three actors in a shot, it plays like a sight gag — against one another to the point they behave more like strangers than flesh and blood. The plot, such that there is one, hinges upon locating a much remarked upon dresser to which David has been given the key. It allegedly contains the family’s deepest secrets, with David’s compulsion to discover what might be inside of it becoming more animating as the film progresses. Meanwhile, Burstyn vamps in grand old dame fashion, venting her spleen over a lifetime of romantic disappointment and how she never wanted children, aborting several would-be offspring as part of her sexual escapades. The character even claims she attempted as much with David but that he “clenched onto” her uterus for dear life (lest anyone miss the significance, she further underlines “you’ve always clenched onto me”). Like a feature-length version of the therapy scenes on The Sopranos, the entire thing can be read as a doting yet resentful son desperately trying to appease an unloving force of nature while coming to terms with the lasting damage his upbringing had on his personal relationships (David is so consumed with helping his mother that he misses his own daughter’s birthday party, further widening the emotional chasm between him and Anne).

But what are we to make of the strange occurrences in the furniture store? The way the building begins to take on an almost liminal quality; tangibly drab in its unassumingness while also calling attention to its symbolic qualities. The way David and his mother are invited to spend the night in the store (Bella even makes up a spare bed for him and offers David a shower, which he both correctly and incorrectly interprets as her making a pass at him). Or the sudden appearance of Bella’s father and uncle, identical twins played by F. Murray Abraham, one of whom speaks in menacing-sounding vagaries and walks around the store wielding a chainsaw, at one point threatening to violently cut the couch David’s mother sits upon in half, perhaps while she still rests upon it. Is this meant to be a reference to King Solomon? (Your guess is as good as mine.) Or what of the dozens of strangers who appear at the store on a dark and stormy evening for an event expressly described as “the last supper.” Would that make David the Christ figure in this story? There’s no crucifixion or resurrection to speak of, although at one point McGregor is literally stabbed in the back, with the actor spending about ten minutes unwittingly with a letter knife sticking out from between his shoulder blades.

There’s a real question to what extent the film even wants to be “solved” as opposed to setting the audience about chasing their own tails in a futile attempt to make sense of contradictory ideas and underbaked allegories. Larsson’s intentionally alienating approach evokes the works of Charlie Kaufman, Ari Aster, and Darren Aronofsky; in the case of the latter, all the biblical allusions feel like this film is in direct conversation with 2017’s hugely divisive Mother! But Larsson is neither the deconstructionist nor the formalist of any of those filmmakers. His images are largely prosaic, while his ambitious swings are fairly earthbound (although to be fair, that may be a reflection of the film’s meager budget as opposed to the filmmaker’s imagination). Instead, Mother, Couch primarily uses non-sequiturs, jagged edits, and a percussion-heavy and atonal musical score to throw off one’s equilibrium. It scoffs at the idea of passive viewership, and on a perverse level you almost have to admire how much this modest indie filled with recognizable faces is making you “work for it.” But it’s difficult to say the film particularly justifies those efforts, neither coalescing into something that encourages repeat viewings nor offering up the sort of surface-level pleasures that serve as their own reward. In the end, the juice simply isn’t worth the squeeze.

DIRECTOR: Niclas Larsson;  CAST: Ewan McGregor, Rhys Ifans, Taylor Russell, Ellen Burstyn;  DISTRIBUTOR: Film Movement/Memory;  IN THEATERS: July 5;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 36 min.