This Is How You Disorient an Audience

'The Father'Credit: Lionsgate
Emphasizing the confusing world of the main character can be accomplished by focusing on these four elements. 

Film has a unique ability to show stories as they are being told to the audience. When those stories rely heavily on the uncertain mind of the main character, filmmakers have to be creative in their approach to set design and editing. One of the most recent films to focus on the perspective of someone whose world is constantly disoriented is The Father. 

The Father is a film that masterfully tells the story of a father named Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) who is suffering from dementia. The story is simple, but the way the film tells the story and forces the audiences into the disorientated state of mind of the father. To create this state of disorientation, The Father focuses heavily on four elements: space, time, repetition, and the sense of recognition.

Check out how Lessons from the Screen broke down the audience’s experience in the video below: 

The form of the story

It is important to understand how the form of the story allows The Father to disorient its audience.

Form is how you want to say something. It is how the film is designed to create an experience for the audience. The form includes a vast number of components like the scripts, the mise en scene, the editing, and every single decision on how the content should be delivered. 

Content and form cannot be separate from each other. Anything you create will have both. Think of it as a piece of mail. The envelope is the form, and the letter is the content. Without the envelope, you can never send a letter. 

This is important to remember when looking at The Father because of how the story is constantly reorganizing itself. The script is meticulously structured and layered. The content is organized in a nonlinear structure that explains itself through its form. There is a note on the design at the beginning of the script that reads: “The intended aim is to create uncertainty and the impression of being simultaneously in the same location and somewhere different—ultimately, a hospital.”

The goal was clear from the beginning: disorient the world of The Father. 

'The Father'Credit: Lionsgate

Sense of space 

The set is one of the ways that the story’s narrative is told. The location, while the same, is an ever-changing labyrinth of the main character’s mind. The creators defined the steps in the evolution of Anthony’s and his daughter Anne’s (Olvia Colman) apartments. 

As the film moves from Anthony’s apartment to an empty space that represents the hospital, a noticeable change happens to the color pallet. Whenever Anthony feels in control or in his apartment, there is warmth in the space. That warmth disappears as he becomes more confused, lost, and afraid of the uncertainty that clouds his mind, and his surroundings become a cold shade of blue. 

The set designs of the apartments are often changing, too. There will be wide shots that define the setting in one scene, but in the next, the room will be altered with different furniture or props. One thing that stays constant is the layout of the rooms to create a sense of familiarity in a “new” space which furthers the audience’s confusion. 

'The Father'Credit: Lionsgate

Sense of time

The film constantly interrupts and confuses the audience’s sense of time through its run time. Like I said before, the scenes in the script do not follow a linear structure, which we are used to in traditional storytelling. There are a few great movies that use the nonlinear structure to add another layer to the story, and The Father’s way of using the structure is masterful. 

A simple example that shows how the timeline functions is the scene with the plastic bags on the kitchen table. In the second scene, Anthony refuses his daughter’s help and sends her away. He then goes into his kitchen confident that he is doing all right until he spots the plastic bags on the table. Anthony is confused why these plastic bags are here. Later in the film, Anne comes into the kitchen and sets the plastic bags on the table. The shot and composition are repeated. 

Looking back, the later scene happens first in the linear timeline, but Anthony’s mind wasn’t able to process that series of events in order. Due to his dementia, his memories are out of order, shuffled into an order that doesn’t make sense anymore. 

The timeline of the story is also very ambiguous. Florian Zeller stated that the film’s timeline can either take place over two days or three months. There is no true answer because the father himself does not know how long it has been. The goal of altering the sense of time and space was to break the logic of the film. The audience can’t comprehend what happened in what order. 

One of the plastic bag scenes in 'The Father'Credit: Lionsgate

Repetition

Repetition is often an effective companion to the other elements of The Father. While it is definitely a stylistic choice, the repetition of actions and conversations and the denial of those repetitions make the audience constantly question what is true and what is not true in the story. 

The chicken dinner scene happens twice in a row to show a circular pattern of the film’s story. Whether or not one is true and one is an altered memory does not matter because the choice to repeat the scene is to mimic how dementia alters a person’s perception of reality. 

The repetition feels like a memory, but the memory is slightly altered each time. It is disturbing to see on screen because it feels like an endless loop that you may or may not escape from. How will it end if it does? One sentence or one word can force the audience to change how they understand the time and space of the story. 

'The Father'Credit: Lionsgate

Sense of recognition 

One of the most shocking effects in The Father is when actors are swapped for the same character. It is a simple change, but it is effective at showing the main character’s deteriorating state of being able to identify people. 

A well-known example of this same tactic of swapping actors for the same character is Luis Bunuel’s The Obscure Object of Desire. In the film, two actresses play the same character to portray her dual nature. 

The inability to recognize characters in The Father intensifies the experience of dementia. It elevates the level of discomfort as Anthony and the audience try to figure out who the new actors are representing. Sometimes, one actor’s voice will be heard, but a different actor will appear in the room. Our expectations are manipulated and obliterated as we are introduced to the same character with a different face. 

Olivia Williams as Catherine/Laura/Anne in 'The Father'Credit: Lionsgate

The Father is brilliant in its approach to understanding how Anthony’s dementia affects his daily life. While it is smart, the film doesn’t try to be too clever for the sake of showing off. When there are too many elements all at one and the visuals become too complicated for the mind, the audience is forced to focus on the emotional aspect of the film to understand what is going on. Zeller wanted the film to have an emotional hit that was emphasized by the disorientation of the father’s world. Who cares about reality when there is someone you love in need? 

By shaping a story that blurs space, time, and the ability to recognize then repeats the same story, the audience is bound to become confused. Having a confused audience isn’t always a bad thing, but there has to be a purpose behind the confusion.

Next time you sit down to write a screenplay, try changing how the world revolves around your main character and allow the audience to experience the main character’s emotional journey. 

What are some of your favorite “What’s happening?” moments from The Father? Let us know in the comments below!      

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The Father illustrates a masterful understanding of the world it is looking to create as well as the masterful integrated execution of the filmmaking elements that bring that vision to life. I'd be curious to know who advised the filmmakers on the ins and outs of dementia and whether the health community that deals with this most closely agrees with its portrayal.

October 15, 2021 at 9:49AM

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Nicholas Buggs
Co-Founder of Bonsai Creative/Co-Host of the MAKE IT Podcast
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