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The Heiresses

Film

The Heiresses: Affluence, Motherhood, and Devastation

MIFF 2022: The Heiresses Review

The 1980 Hungarian classic restored in all it’s decadence and drama for the audience at MIFF 2022, The Heiresses (also known as The Inheritance) is a harrowing collision between complicated lives and the steady march of history. Director Márta Mészáros dissects class, romance, and the cost of motherhood through the politically charged leadup to World War II in an increasingly tumultuous Hungary. It’s a unique approach to a very personal story, the three lives weaving around each other before tragically colliding is placed front and center with the changing times as the backdrop.

The leading role of The Heiresses could be argued to be either Szilvia or Irèn, and depending on whose side we focus in on the weight of the narrative shifts. Szilvia, portrayed by the iconic and world renown Isabelle Huppert, is an affluent woman married to good looking military officer Ákos (Jan Nowicki). He owes his position to his wife and the great influence of her very wealthy father, who has grown ill in his advancing years. He decides to give all his money to the couple’s future child when he does pass, something which begins to eat away at Szilvia. She’s sterile, though unable to bring herself to tell her father.

The Heiresses
Image courtesy of MIFF

On the other side is Irèn (longtime Mészáros collaborator Lili Monori), a strong and independent Jewish woman without much to her name. In this time and place, her desire to live without being under the rule of a husband, as well as her and Szilvia’s sexual and romantic tension, would probably be considered quite offensive. However with her status in the hierarchy of life and her quiet and outwardly unassuming nature, she instead slips by unnoticed; that is until Szilvia begins to hound her to be the mother of Ákos’ child. From here Szilvia’s mental state slips further and further, and the decision to bring this woman who cared so much for her in to this position ends up tearing apart the three of their lives.

It’s a complicated narrative. The Heiresses provides difficult positions and characters who move from desperate to lost. Irèn states that dreams are only dreams until they’re fulfilled, and that statement shapes the narrative. Irèn wanted to help her dear friend and the woman she seemed to love, and ended up having her mind clouded from the consistent manipulation and pressure as well as the experience of having a baby of her own. Szilvia just wanted a child, not necessarily for the money’s sake but it seemed to be something she felt she had to do, to bring an heir into the world. In orchestrating this, she ends up losing everything around her.

The Heiresses is a tragedy on three sides, each of the central characters end up losing so much, and as we move forward in time into WWII, irreversible decisions are made. The performances from the whole cast truly bring this film to life, and the very complicated natures of the characters give us empathy even as they betray each other and themselves. Szilvia’s mental breakdown, as well as Irèn’s loss of self, are expertly navigated through both the script and the standout performances of Lili Monori and Isabelle Huppert respectively.

The Heiresses - Iren & Szilvia
Image courtesy of MIFF

There’s a desolate, foreboding air hanging heavy in the atmosphere. From the sparse, cold, and distant sense of nature, to the seductively-lit decadent homes and venues, the gradual dissension is felt in the scenery. Emphasizing this feeling is a lot of tight angles and long uninterrupted shots, the cast putting in fantastic performances as the camera gave them the space to do so. Something that does feel a little disjointed is the few jumps in time; the audience is made to infer what happened in the in-between and play a bit of catch up. The attention to detail in the script does wholly make up for this at least.

The Heiresses is an elegiac slow burn drama that pulls no punches when it comes to the devastation of its characters. Watching love blossom and wilt away as the high price of motherhood mixed with expectation tears pieces from relationships, makes for an ultimately haunting tale. Irèn and Szilvia have the camera zero in on them as a large part of the storytelling comes from the incredible performances from Isabelle Huppert and Lili Monori, an environmental style of tension building, and Szilvia’s manipulative tactics ending up eating away her sanity. The Heiresses is a moody film with a lot to say, and comes across as edge-of-your-seat fascinating.

***

The 70th edition of Melbourne International Film Festival will run from August 4th – 21st in cinemas, and August 11th – 28th, 2022 online.

Written By

Shane Dover is a Melbourne, Australia based freelance writer contributing to Japanese punk news site Punx Save The Earth, punk publication Dying Scene, Diabolique Magazine and Goomba Stomp. Not just a fan of punk music, he's spent most of his life obsessed with the horror genre across all media, Japanese cinema, as well as pop culture in general. He plays music and writes fiction, check out his Twitter (https://twitter.com/Karzid) for updates on those projects.

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