The world is awash in coming-of-age stories about children leaving home and young people learning how to be adults, but rarely does one see a story about adults learning how to be young people. That’s the subject of Danish director Christian Tafdrup’s Parents, a story about empty-nest syndrome and the adults among us seeking the freedom, and even the heartbreak, of youth.
Parents opens with Kjeld (Soren Malling) and Vibeke (Bodil Jorgensen), two parents past middle age with a grown son Esben (Anton Honik) just moving out. Faced with an empty nest, the pair lacks anything to say to one another as they rattle around their now too large home. That’s when Kjeld finds out that their old student apartment, just around the corner from their son, has gone up for sale.
The pair pull out their roots and move back to the site of their youthful love affair. As Kjeld reconstructs the apartment to look more and more like their old flat – leaks, mildew, peeling paint, and all – the couple also begin to revert back to their younger selves, until one morning they awake to discover that they are literally thirty years younger.
Parents is the sort of story that would be rote and maudlin in the hands of a Hollywood director. It takes those familiar themes of lost youth, the disconnect between generations, and the slow decay of a long marriage that have been the subjects of all too many generic films. But thankfully, it transcends its more simplistic plot, instead opting for deadpan humor and drama with a tinge of surreal horror.
The story grows more complex and interweaving as Kjeld and Vibeke navigate a world of youth with the memories and experience of mature people. Kjeld fantasizes about a world he remembers through rose-colored glasses, forgetting the heartache and the suffering that can come from young relationships, while Vibeke sees an opportunity to fulfill some of the dreams and experiences she had to forgo all those years before.
If the film fails anywhere, it is with the younger versions of Kjeld and Vibeke themselves. While we understand them more and more as individuals, as a young couple they are less believable, their relationship less palpable than their older selves. The older couple long for a renewal of their connection without being sure about how to go about it, but the younger couple is split off from each other right from the start. As this is a story about rediscovery as much as anything, the lack of apparent connection between the younger selves (who also possess the same memories as the older ones) becomes more inexplicable as the film goes on.
As Parents takes increasingly darker and more complicated twists, the characters are thrown into relief – Esben ceases to be quite as self-centered as we first believe him, while Kjeld and Vibeke search out the meaning of their past and their future together with increasing passion and increasing fear. There aren’t any easy outs, either – the more Kjeld attempts to reconstruct every facet of their former lives, the more Vibeke stretches outward and away from him in search of new experience.
The movement from the stark Nordic formalism of their family home to the warm but decaying world of their flat draws the connection between the past and the present and then begins to confuse it. The two worlds merge just as Kjeld and Vibeke experience youth and maturity at one and the same moment, the warmth beginning to transfer to the modern buildings while the flat grows increasingly cold and desiccated.
Director Christian Tafdrup comments that Parents was originally based on a dream, and it certainly follows its own brand of dream logic. The reality and surreality blend together to produce an emotional and humorous story about letting go of the past, embracing the realities of the present, and looking into the future not as a place where we grow old and die, but find new meaning and greater adventures. Parents is a delicate film, weaving between realism, surrealism, and existentialism with an organic logic that nevertheless leaves much unexplained. If it is a somewhat confounding experience, it is also a profound one.
An often profound film, Parents interweaves reality, surreality, and a tinge of horror to tell a story about rediscovering love and letting go of the past.