‘Armand’ Review: Renate Reinsve Is Riveting in Fearsome Chamber Drama

Cannes 2024: Though she won Best Actress at the festival for her performance in 2021’s ‘The Worst Person in the World,’ Reinsve’s latest is her best work to date

Renate Reinsve in "Armand" (Courtesy of the Cannes Film Festival)

In one of many standout scenes in the astounding “Armand,” a woman sits in a classroom where she is discussing allegations surrounding her son. Elisabeth, played by an unmatched Renate Reinsve, suddenly begins to laugh. Despite the seriousness of the situation, she can’t stop no matter how much the others plead with her. It goes on and on before the pained laughter turns to agonized sobs as everything Elisabeth has been carrying comes pouring out all at once. There is something unshakably mesmerizing coursing through this scene and the film that surrounds it. Just as the floods of melancholy threaten to swallow the characters whole, you don’t dare look away. 

While such moments could easily be dismissed as showy in less confident hands, when done with such confidence and command of craft like it is here, this is what represents film, and the acting therein, at its very best. Where everything else preceding this moment is more patiently underplayed, it is this scene that first marks the film’s menacing magnificence. Forget sweeping shots of big landscapes, it’s the topography of the human face that is most stunning to behold. In Reinsve’s crumbling visage, we bear witness to what happens when the lives we delicately build threaten to chip and shatter before our eyes. 

This is what defines “Armand.” An evocative exploration of a crisis that expands outwards in ambition just as it delves further and further into the minds of its characters. It’s a film told in painful, often extreme close-up and marks an audacious feature debut from Halfdan Ullmann Tøndel who, in addition to being the grandson of Ingmar Bergman, has something in common with Reinsve. Both have worked with Joachim Trier, with Tøndel assisting on 2017’s terrific thriller “Thelma” and Reinsve starring in 2011’s wonderful “The Worst Person in the World.” They prove with “Armand” that their collaboration here is something completely arresting all on its own.  

Premiering at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival, “Armand” is a claustrophobic and often slippery drama set almost entirely at a school. The title refers to Elisabeth’s son, who we mostly hear discussed though rarely see for ourselves. He’s being accused by another family of abusing their child. With the well-intentioned teacher Sunna (Thea Lambrechts Vaulen) and the nervous headmaster Jarle (Øystein Røger) attempting to facilitate a discussion, all will gather in a classroom to talk about what they should do with the situation. While Anders (Endre Hellestveit) and Sarah (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) come into the room aware of what they will be discussing, Elisabeth is both alone and completely unaware of what is going on until the accusation is dropped on her. 

Though this plot could initially sound similar to last year’s film “Monster,” which also premiered at the festival, it could not be more different in form, tone and execution. While many scenes play out in the classroom where all the characters have gathered, the film also begins to wander throughout the building as all the troubled characters try to cope with what’s going on. Though it expands the film a bit, cinematographer Pål Ulvik Rokseth makes all of this just as persistently claustrophobic as the room itself. Both the chillingly cold feel of the film’s color palette and the suffocating sense that we are right up in the characters’ faces prevent us from looking away, for even a moment. It’s as though you’re watching a nightmare play out in fleeting snapshots.

Even as some of the film can feel slightly overstretched, it still casts a beautifully beguiling spell. When it embraces some more surreal flourishes, the emotional foundation that Tøndel and Reinsve have laid ensures this all mostly lands.

There are also plenty of hauntingly grim revelations and Reinsve’s performance to ground the entire story. She’s outstanding whether she’s carrying a dialogue-heavy scene or sitting in silence. It’s a performance both gripping and graceful, giving everything to a film that demands quite a bit.

Even as Elisabeth is on the verge of falling into dark oblivion, Reinsve shines like a diamond being formed under immense pressure.


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