An Audience of Chairs: Portrait of Mental Illness Half Succeeds in Penetrating the Mind

By Liam Lacey

Rating: B-

Based on Newfoundland author Joan Clark’s 2005 novel about a woman with bipolar disorder who loses custody her young daughters, Deanne Foley’s film An Audience of Chairs — which won several awards at last year’s Atlantic Film Festival — is intended as a sympathetic portrait of mental illness from a woman who seems to have it all. In practice, it serves as an example of the challenge of getting inside someone else’s head.

A scene from An Audience of Chairs.

A scene from An Audience of Chairs.

The story begins in 1997, when we see the regally beautiful Maura (Carolina Bartczak) on a concert stage, finishing a piano recital. Soon after, she arrives on an island with her two daughters for a two-week holiday. She gets a call from her husband Duncan (Christopher Jacot), an ambitious television journalist, who says he is going to be away on assignment. That means Maura will miss an important audition. The loss of this career opportunity triggers her first breakdown.

Bartczak occupies almost every frame of the film, and she portrays her character’s mental shifts with an inward-focused subtlety: lying in bed staring into space while her daughters nervously try to boil eggs for lunch. The pace picks up when Maura has a manic bout, her head tossed back in pleasure. She starts a campfire with her daughters and nearly burns down the house.

Later, on an impulse, she takes off in a rowboat leaving her children stranded on an island for the night. She loses custody of them; a new crisis for her mental health. But what does despair look like, beyond scenes of the actress wearing a distant gaze, stooped posture, and unbrushed hair?

In her novel, Clark took an omniscient perspective on the character, named Moranna. From the outside, she’s assertively eccentric (“Picture a woman wearing a red lace blouse, a pink satin bathrobe and a purple wig…”). Her delusions are sometimes humourous, a liberation from feminine propriety. She writes blasphemous sermons for the local minister. She kidnaps the mailman because she isn’t getting her mail. When she’s interviewed by a psychiatrist, she believes he must be Leonid Brezhnev’s brother: “His excellent English troubled her. Perhaps he wasn’t a brother at all but a double the KGB were using.”

The movie’s script, written by Rosemary House, is more careful in not treating mental illness as amusing, or all that eventful. Occasionally, we get a flashback or hallucination of Maura’s mother, who also suffered from faraway gaze syndrome. Mostly, Maura sits in her dressing gown at her kitchen table, fingering the painted piano keys on wooden board, while her eyes are closed in rapture and music plays on the soundtrack. Except for one meltdown where she breaks a chair, the house remains improbably tidy. The scenery, around Tors Cove, Newfoundland, is stunning and the classical music throughout contributes to the tone of an oddly orderly mental illness.

Periodically, Maura’s friend (Edie Inksetter) or worried father (Peter McNeill) pop in, to try to push her toward help. Even the man Maura sees as her adversary, her husband Duncan, isn’t deliberately cruel when he takes custody of her children and denies her access to them. Once the children are safely out of harm’s way, the film loses much of its tension. Around the film’s midpoint, Maura briefly taps bottom, dressed in an outsize fur hat, walking with a limp, scaring the parents of small children. She takes a bus trip to throw herself off a wharf, apparently led by the vision of her late mother.

But her salvation is achieved by the presence of a handsome and sensitive trucker (Gord Rand) who seems a little like a hero from a romance novel, as he takes her first to his motel bed and then on the road to healing. “Years later” says a title card, which means Maura now wears her hair upswept instead of in messy bangs. Her daughters are grown, and there are only a few blips on the road to reconciliation and piano duos with the relatives. As a portrait of mental illness, it all feels uncomfortably sane.

An Audience of Chairs. Directed by Deanne Foley. Written by Rosemary House, based on the novel by Joan Clark. Starring Carolina Bartczak, Peter MacNeill, Gord Rand, Edie Inksetter, and Christopher Jacot. Opens in select theatres including Toronto’s Carlton Cinema on March 22.