Dementia & The Fight To Hold Onto Who He Was In The Film 'The Father'

Photo: IMDB
scene from "The Father"
Self

The brilliance — and terror — of Florian Zeller’s The Father is that we’re living inside the mind of an aging man losing his identity to dementia.

To watch it from the outside is bad enough.

I know. I was that daughter, too. But to be the one losing his grip on who he was is truly heartbreaking.

Reality’s blurred, time’s not static, past and present are mixed up with each other, and people are not who they seem; confused with memory, fantasy, and warring parts of The Father, himself.

Florian Zeller is a keen observer of dementia — a devastating disease that no one wants anyone to have.

The Father begins with Anne (played by Olivia Coleman) calling, "Dad? Dad? What are you doing? What happened?"

Dad, Anthony (played by Anthony Hopkins), replies, feigning innocence, "Nothing... I don’t even know who that lady is or what she was doing here.”

When Anne tells him, "She’s here to help you," he (as anyone trying to hold on to his independence might do), replies, irritated, "I don’t need her, I don’t need anyone."

And thus begins our journey inside Anthony’s deteriorating identity and fragile hold on memory and time. We’re as confused about what’s happening as he is.

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A "stolen" watch & confusion of time in The Father

Anthony’s suspicious of the woman who comes to "help him." And, he’s suspicious of Anne.

Paranoia is part of losing a grip on memory and time. Someone must be doing something to him. Anthony is certain that this "helper" is trying to steal his watch.

Time is stolen by dementia. And it’s the confusion of time we painfully live in through The Father.

"She stole my watch. She set a trap. It’s nowhere to be found."

What else is he to think when everything is being taken from him, everything of who he was?

Desperately trying to hold on, a moment later, Anthony comes out whistling, strapping his watch on his wrist, trying to hide his breech of time, memory, and reality.

We begin to see how bad it really is. Anne tells him he must let someone come to help him. She’s met a man and is leaving London for Paris.

He’s angry and cruel. "Ah, that’s why you’re so keen on a nurse living with me. The rats are leaving the ship."

He feels abandoned. Old feelings have a way of crashing down when you feel helpless. He’s young, he’s old, he’s independent, and he’s confused.

The past collapses into now.

"I don’t need help… I don’t need anyone."

"You’re leaving me, abandoning me. What’s going to become of me, Anne?"

It’s frightening to be alone. But, no, he doesn’t need help, Anthony tells himself.

He fights with Anne. She knows he needs a carer. He refuses to believe he does. Later, he insists to "The Man" that he doesn’t know why his daughter persists.

"I can manage on my own. I’m not completely… (making the Cuckoo sign.)"

He’s terribly confused.

Where is Anne?

"She’s gone down to buy some chicken." When she "returns," it’s not Anne. Later, we understand that this "Anne" is his new carer at the Home.

"It’s been going on a long time, strange things around me," he tells Anne who isn’t Anne.

He doesn’t trust his daughter. He tells the not-so-nice man, "She’s cooking something up, I suspect she wants to put me in one of those… homes for… I’m not leaving my flat!"

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Who is "The Man" in the father's flat?

Yes, there’s a "Man" in his flat. Is it his flat? Why is "The Man" (played by Mark Gatiss) there? His "flat" is his mind, his identity — life as he lived and knew it, the life that is falling away.

This "Man" is as cruel to Anthony as Anthony is towards Anne. He "says" he’s Anne’s "husband" and, later, he’s Anthony’s carer at the Home. Who is he in Anthony’s mind?

He’s the part of Anthony who berates him for not being the Anthony he was. "The Man’s" viciousness begins after Anthony says to his first woman carer.

"You’re speaking to me as if I’m retarded, well, I’m not. ‘Let’s get dressed, here’s your little blue pill…’ I’m very intelligent, I have a memory like an elephant, you need to bear that in mind."

"The Man," sitting in the living room, turns on him.

"How long do you intend to hang around getting on everyone’s tits."

Anthony, The Father, hates himself for being at all dependent.

"Do you intend to go on ruining your daughter’s life? Might you behave reasonably in the foreseeable future?"

"The Man" hits Anthony in the face, over and over again.

"That’s something I won’t allow, getting on everyone’s tits past a certain age."

No question. He’s the part of Anthony, struggling to hold on to his mind and independence.

"No, I won’t put up with that. I find it totally inappropriate." Yes, Anthony himself does.

He breaks down sobbing. "The Man" appears and berates him when he feels threatened with need, vulnerability, and abandonment.

Anne asks: "Is it about your watch?" Yes, it’s about time. Time lost, time very confused.

Anne soothes him, "I found it. It’s OK."

“It’s Ok, little daddy. Come on, baby. it's OK.”

But it’s not OK. Everything’s all mixed up.

"Little Daddy" and the regression to "Little Boy."

"What do you think of this room? I think you’d be better off here."

The Father looks at Anne, confused. "Where would you sleep?"

"Remember, I’m going to live in Paris."

"No, you’re not... You said you’re staying here with me.” They both cry.

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We watch her walk away, in a shot of a sculpture with a broken face. Everything that was, is shattered.

He wakes up in the room, that isn’t in his flat, with a strange nurse.

"Where’s Anne?"

"Remember, she lives in Paris."

"No, no."

His memory isn’t that of an elephant anymore.

"The Man" stands at the doorway, jarring Anthony.

"Who’s that?"

"He’s Bill, you see him every day."

"Who are you?"

"I’m Catherine (played by Olivia Williams)."

"What about me? Who exactly am I?"

"You? You’re Anthony."

"Anthony? It’s a nice name… My mother gave it to me… I want my mommy. And, I want to go home."

He sobs.

"What is it, Anthony?"

"I feel like I’m losing all my leaves… I don’t know what’s happening, do you know?… But I know my watch is on my wrist… For the journey… If not, I don’t know if I’d be ready to…"

It’s the last reminder of who he was.

Catherine reaches out a hand and puts her arm around him. In a soothing voice, she tells him step by step what they will do, orienting him, helping him hold on to pieces of his life right now.

He puts his head on her shoulder. She rocks him as he cries.

"Come on baby. Shhh. I promise you; everything will be all right."

Of course, we know it won’t. And, Anthony, The Father, knows it, too. He’s feeling all that he’s already lost.

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Dr. Sandra Cohen is a Los Angeles-based psychologist and psychoanalyst. She specializes in treating childhood trauma, persistent depressive states, and all types of anxiety. For more information, visit her website.

This article was originally published at Sandra E. Cohen, Ph.D.'s blog, Characters On The Couch. Reprinted with permission from the author.