The title Barrage is, of course, a pun. It can mean a weir, or anything blocking a watercourse, as well as a bombardment (military, verbal or sporting). The title of this small chamber-piece wants to let you know that you’re in for both – there’s a literal weir that plays a role in the final act, but this is also about bickering families, pent-up emotions and a gifted young tennis player. The title, therefore, seems to be a warning; only, the barrage never really comes.
Laura Schroeder’s intimate drama stars Lolita Chammah as Catherine, a mother trying to reconnect with her daughter Alba (Themis Pauwels) after being separated due to reasons that are never fully made clear (it seems that drugs and mental health problems made her unfit). Alba has been looked after in the meantime by Catherine’s mother Elisabeth, played in a neat bit of casting by Chammah’s actual mum Isabelle Huppert. Catherine and Elisabeth clash over what’s best for the young girl before Catherine as good as kidnaps her daughter and goes on a trip to a mountain chalet.
Naturally the Hupperts are dazzling. Huppert Senior gets very little screentime, but uses each second of it to convey a wealth of complex feelings towards her troubled daughter. Chammah, meanwhile, is wounded, needy and vulnerable, struggling to connect with her estranged, headstrong daughter. The real revelation, however, is Pauwels, often the point of stillness as her mother’s chaos unfolds around her. Together, the three of them carry the thinly stretched plot and sustain interest through its baggy 112-minute runtime.
The slow pace allows for some beautiful character moments – including Catherine and Alba finally bonding while dancing. Tentatively, they start to find the same rhythm as Catherine follows her daughter’s moves, and the lyrics “don’t let me down” play out like a warning in the background. At times, Barrage feels like a low-key Dardennes film, but without their thematic weight. A sense of unease and anticipation builds, fuelled by the idea that this unsteady family could fall apart at any given moment.
Yet Schroeder ultimately underplays her hand and the build-up reaches an unsatisfactory pay-off. Schroeder achieves admirable credibility – every beat feels real – but misses out on a cinematic finale. Even the Chekhov’s Weir of the title barely gets used, while no tennis or verbal barrage ever really emerges. In the end, it merely plays out like watching someone else’s family have an awkward argument.