Domain, directed by Patric Chiha, studies the relationship between a brilliant, but troubled mathematician, Nadia (Béatrice Dalle), and her teenage nephew, Pierre (Isaïe Sultan). Pierre finds Nadia fascinating and far more stimulating, intellectually or otherwise, than his piers; Nadia gravitates towards Pierre as he is her last remaining connection to her sister, with whom she has a very distant and emotionally vacant relationship. The two spend nearly all of their free time together, a practice that concerns many around them.
The two relate because they possess a shared grief over their fractured relationships with Pierre’s mother, Barbara. Barbara refuses to speak with her sister because she is an alcoholic and refuses to get help. Pierre struggles to connect with his mom because she is having trouble coping with his transition into adulthood. Pierre and Nadia’s relationship with each other only further fractures their relationships with her.
In the beginning, Nadia and Pierre’s shared intimacy seems inappropriate. There is a suppressed sexual tension that, while making viewers uneasy, draws them into Domain’s story. Chiha focuses the first act of his film exploring this aspect of their relationship. He deftly balances the normal and abnormal qualities of the characters’ bond, keeping the audience wondering, “Will they cross the line?”
Unfortunately, just as their relationship seems to be entering taboo territory, he cowardly veers away. It is revealed that Pierre is gay. Addressing a teen’s coming-out would have been brave in another film, but here it just feels like a copout. When juxtaposed with a potential sexual relationship with his aunt, Pierre’s homosexuality seems downright conventional. Sure, it doesn’t need to be a big deal, because, to accepting folk, it’s not. However, Chiha uses Pierre’s orientation as a prop, serving no purpose but to move the plot forward.
The rest of Domain falls into the same trappings. Nadia’s career as a mathematician is discussed at length in the film’s opening scenes, but again, its relevance is shallow. Nadia explains that she is attracted to numbers because they are constant and orderly, whereas every other aspect in her life is chaotic. The problem: we are told that. It’s never really illustrated, so it’s hard to care. Her alcoholism plays out very much the same. Her sister Barbara says she has a problem, we see her drinking a lot, but there aren’t any specific events where her drinking causes problems. So, though many issues are introduced, there’s no time to flesh them out.
Because the plot is so overstuffed with various conflicts and resolutions, there isn’t enough detail offered to show why any of it is important. So, when it’s finally time to attach a point to the story, viewers are so disengaged, it doesn’t matter anymore.
Domain also suffers from over-length. If this were a better film, I might describe its pace as deliberate; instead, I’ll say it’s slow. At under two hours, its runtime really isn’t excessive; it just feels like a chore. There are a few points in the film that felt like natural endings, but Chiha pressed forward, introducing more conflicts and then abandoning them almost instantly. If Chiah were to cut Domain extensively, and focus his story on a single, unifying subject, it might transform into a decent (but still not spectacular) film. Instead, we are left with a muddled mess of a motion picture.
The San Francisco International Film Festival takes place this year from April 22 to May 6.
Please visit the official SFIFF website for more information on specific screenings.