Lithuania’s Austėja Urbaitė on her enigmatic adoption drama Remember to Blink

Anne Azoulay, Inesa Sionova, and Dovilė Kundrotaitė in Remember to Blink (dir. Austėja Urbaitė, 2022)

One of the most compelling debuts to emerge from the Baltics in recent years, Remember to Blink is the first feature from Lithuania’s Austėja Urbaitė. Set in the secluded French countryside, the film follows married couple Jacqueline and Léon (Anne Azoulay and Arthur Igual) as they welcome newly adopted Lithuanian siblings Karolina and Rytis (Inesa Sionova and Ajus Antanavičius) into their home. To help with the language barrier, they also hire Gabrielė (Dovilė Kundrotaitė), a bilingual student, as a live-in translator and nanny. As tensions brew between Jacqueline and this ambiguous new female presence, the nascent family come to realise just how precarious their idyll truly is.

Is there really such a thing as selfless love? At what point does the parental impulse tip into narcissism? And how does one balance the competing forces of nature and nurturing when it comes to constructing a family unit? Ably abetted by cinematographer Julius Sičiūnas, Urbaitė has crafted a portrait of domestic conflict that refuses to settle for easy answers to these and many other questions. Carefully modulated shifts in perspective keep the viewer on their toes, as sympathy is afforded to each member of the (uniformly excellent) cast in turn. With snakes slithering through the undergrowth and a subplot concerning a mosaic of the Gorgon Medusa, Urbaitė also deftly hints at a mythological aspect to the unfolding action. That the film covers so much ground while remaining bound to its increasingly claustrophobic country home setting is testament to Urbaitė’s precocity as both writer and director. We spoke with the filmmaker via email about her approach to working with children, the film’s play with perspectives and language, and its treatment of nature and nationality.

Inesa Sionova and Ajus Antanavičius in Remember to Blink (dir. Austėja Urbaitė, 2022)

I’ve read that the film was inspired in part by your experiences working in an orphanage. Could you tell us how that influence worked in practice? Did it inform the narrative choices that you made? 

I was volunteering as a theatre teacher for a mixed group of 7–13-year-olds; I wasn’t paid and that meant I didn’t have to obey any need for “results”. Basically, we spent two years talking, playing, learning to just be, to share our feelings, to respect each other’s expressions and to listen to each other. I think that, apart from learning who they are and how they can behave –what are their pains and struggles; what are their tools for manipulating you; what is their beauty and premature life wisdom – the biggest thing I ended up learning was how to direct kids, or rather how to teach a kid about natural acting and improvisation, and how to teach them to enjoy it as a form of expression and relaxation. And I turned that into a structural plan and used it when preparing the two kids for the film. These kids I worked with in the orphanage had friends who had already been adopted in Italy, families in Italy they visited every summer. I listened to their stories to get deeper into that topic. I put into the script their behaviour, some of their dialogues, or lines they dropped on me; some of how they made me feel was used for the grown-up characters.

 

Why did you want to make a film centred around the idea of translation? And what challenges did that pose as both writer and director, beyond the obvious practical ones? As I understand it, Dovilė Kundrotaitė didn’t speak French before she worked on the film – how did your work together on creating the character of Gabrielė change as a result of the translation factor? 

This is a situation where you can’t dive on your own into something so sensitive and fragile because you need a “middleman”. I found foreign adoption to be extremely difficult and stressful for both the parents and kids, with a constant questioning of the approach to one’s identity. I wanted us to think about it. Translation is just one of the tools you can use for communication. It’s not words that allow you to stop, listen, see, and connect. And the movie is about these people failing to communicate with one another and even to themselves, no matter what the language.

I think I remember just one moment during Dovilė’s French lesson, where she tried so much to get the pronunciation right that I couldn’t recognise the actress anymore. I remember I told her that I didn’t care how comprehensible her words were, as long as her emotions were real. I would rather use subtitles and have Jacqueline talk to her in gestures and be confused all the time than lose the character behind the words. And so we allowed ourselves errors that would create beautiful improvisations. Dovilė was the one having the most difficulty, because she had to play in a different language, translating at the same time as working with kids and leading them on from within the scene. I don’t know whether people can truly understand what inner strengh it takes to create a character like that.

As for me, it gave me more advantages than disadvantages. Especially when directing a scene and being able to have your own secret language with each actor. The only thing was that the need to constantly switch between three languages completely drained my energy. And sometimes I would forget to translate to the director of photography, Julius Sičiūnas, what the actor would do differently in the next take. But you know, everything has a price.

I wanted to see how far these characters would go if they blindly followed their ego-driven impulses, with no one to open their eyes for them. I wanted them to be small in the greatness of nature, but for them to feel like everything happening to them was so big.

I’d love to hear about the location: how you found it, what you were looking for while scouting. It’s such an essential part of the film’s success: it has to be evocative in a very particular way.

In the original script, it was supposed to be a small house in the dry land of southern France, surrounded by mighty mountains and ocean, near a little town where almost nobody lived. It was essential for me that these people were separated from the exterior world and from exterior perspectives, so that they would drown in their own close-minded narratives. I wanted to see how far they would go if they blindly followed their ego-driven impulses, with no one to open their eyes for them. I wanted them to be small in the greatness of nature, but for them to feel like everything happening to them was so big. I was looking to create something that was peaceful and sunny on the outside, but rotten on the inside.

When we lost all hope of getting funding to shoot in France, the first place that led me to believe that I could manage to create this world in Lithuania was the cave. I knew it from childhood: it is not too well known, but it’s the only sand cave in Lithuania. Sitting inside it was where I started recreating the story and thinking about how to connect with it. We were searching for something, like the cave, that felt as though it was not from here. In the end, we only had two houses to choose from: this one, or the ruins of a tower. Both options, like actors, would have dictated completely different colour palettes, moods, style, costumes; I presume the [tower] would even have dictated [the use of] a stable camera and wider shots. When we entered the yard [of the first house], we felt a strong energy there. The DoP Julius Sičiūnas and the production designer Justė Vazgytė instantly fell in love with the architecture, which was completely authentic – it was created and hand-built by a Lithuanian photographer. Standing in the yard, I could imagine myself being up a mountain, even though the house is in a town and everywhere around it behind the fence are other houses. So, I rewrote the script for that specific house, and all art and camera decisions were then influenced by the house. Our carefully planned VFX, editing, and art constructions allowed us to create the impression of a house in the mountains with minimum finances.

Anne Azoulay and Inesa Sionova in Remember to Blink (dir. Austėja Urbaitė, 2022)

Did you and director of photography Julius Sičiūnas have any specific cinematographic influences in mind when it came to deciding how to shoot the script? The repeated visual motif of the close-up shot of insects is very striking, for instance. 

Anything I will say in answer here will be very vague. The shots were dictated by the location and emotion of the scene. The close-ups of insects, like the wide shots of mountains or waterfalls, are part of the need to feel the constant theme of shifting perspectives. Julius and I used many different, changing references to communicate to each other, so I don’t remember them. I only remember that Julius referenced [Darren Aronofsky’s] mother! for the light quite often. In the early stages I was really hooked on the atmosphere of Jacques Rivette’s La belle noiseuse and really wanted that summer mood, but that flew out the window together with [the change in] country. Maybe [Aronofsky’s] Black Swan was referenced at some point for the handheld camera movement. But really, any references we used were to help us understand each other rather than to follow.

 

There are repeated references in the film to the myth of Medusa. There is also something archetypal about the characters as you present them: completely isolated from the world, acting out the primal roles of mother, father, children. How do you understand the relationship of mythology to the film?

Medusa was turned into a monster because she was punished for being raped. She came to be a monster out of horrific pain. Was it even justice? And because of this pain, I feel that she is so connected to Jacqueline’s past. Here again we circle back to the theme of perspective: of looking at someone and trying to understand them. Léon painted the Gorgon as a goddess of nature; Gabrielė demonises her while becoming the same thing herself.  We know that if you look the Gorgon in the eye, you turn to stone. A little thing not many people notice: Léon makes her eyes out of mirrors, so that in her eyes you see yourself. That’s just something to think about. We feel the paradisical garden turn to hell, and it is them themselves who are doing it. No one is helping them, but no one is making them either.

The question is, why do we fail to see each other in particular situations? What mirror do we need to look through? Divisions come from upbringing, heritage, experiences; countries are just classifications.

Did you conceive of the film as speaking to the divide between what is casually referred to as “Western” and “Eastern” Europe (here represented by France and Lithuania)? A lot of the characterisation of Jacqueline in particular seems to relate to her dismissal of or misunderstanding of the children’s heritage.

I think this decision is just a great playground to analyse how ignorant we are of one another, how judgmental. Let’s take two parents from the same country, who had different upbringings and [therefore] raise their kids differently and judge each other’s actions. Well, here you go: it’s like [they’re from] two different countries. Now, let’s take parents who adopt kids from their own country, but ignore their past and heritage and deprive the kids of that knowledge. Maybe they are scared that the child will connect to their past and won’t love them, won’t respect them, won’t be obedient; maybe they see the kid as an object that complements their world. If you want to have “him” be like “us”, maybe any other side of him should be erased? For the sake of family purity? This kind of reminds me of the act of occupying another country and erasing their heritage. And now let’s take parents who give birth to their kids but ignore the fact that they are individuals and crush their personal identities trying to push them to match a preformed image. Isn’t it exactly the same? You have the same processes in the vast natural space that you call a country or in a small house that is isolated from it. Take any other nation and you’ll find the same parallel: different colours, but the same blindness and judgment. The question is, why do we fail to see each other in particular situations? What mirror do we need to look through? Divisions come from upbringing, heritage, experiences; countries are just classifications. It’s not classifications that move forward, it’s the elements.

 

There are a number of references throughout the film to encroaching forest fires, although we never see them arrive at the family’s house. What was the symbolic significance of that external, environmental threat for you? I was reminded of Christian Petzold’s most recent film Afire, although of course the two films are attempting very different things. 

All the natural elements in this film serve as mirrors for the emotional atmosphere in the house and between the characters. We feel the rising tension and the destruction of the inner emotional garden. Symbolically, for me personally, it’s just that: we create our own destruction.

Watch Remember to Blink on Klassiki from 4 January.