Elpida (Stella Fyrogeni) just wanted to get her doctor’s opinion on treating her symptoms of menopause. Instead, she leaves his office after an examination with every kind of pill and cream imaginable, a laundry list of side effects that are somehow delivered with a straight face, and confirmation that even when she seeks out help or advice, it won’t come in the form she wants.
This opening sequence sets up Pause to be a much more darkly humorous story than it ultimately is. Elpida is trapped in a loveless marriage of decades to Costas (Andreas Vasiliou), who merely grunts at her in lieu of conversation when he isn’t complaining or ordering her around their apartment. By day, Elpida cleans the apartment, does the grocery shopping, and dabbles in painting Van Gogh sunflowers, all soundtracked by the incessant, downright sinister chirping of Costas’ parrot. Her sole joys come from her night painting course, calling her daughter on the phone, and playing with her friend Eleftheria’s (Popi Avram) small infant.
Slowly but surely, Costas begins to isolate Elpida from the rest of the world, arguing with her over getting internet access and even selling the car she needs to do said grocery shopping over her repeated objections. Subsequently, Elpida begins to slip into brief daydreams of a different life. Primed by a young, attractive house painter accidentally seeing her exiting her shower, and by the overly-affectionate couple in her building expecting a baby, Elpida begins to experience sexual fantasies about these other men who dart in and out of the margins of her life. But when it comes to her reality with Costas, we see, all too viscerally, what Elpida wishes she could do—stand up for herself against Costas, scream at him, fight back… and, eventually, kill him to escape him.
The humor of Pause, such that it is, becomes less subtle and more divorced from the narrative as we alternate among Elpida’s interactions (or lack thereof) with Costas, Elpida’s increasingly aggressive and disturbing fantasies, and the occasional appearance of Eleftheria to say something relatively funny. Whether Eleftheria works as a comic relief character is unclear, as her vanity-inspired decision to get plastic surgery (and subsequent puffy, bandaged face) isn’t exactly the most original running gag. But as Elpida’s confidante-slash-id of sorts, the angel and devil on her shoulder who may or may not be gently (jokingly, jokingly) egging her on to kill Costas, and as Elpida’s easily-accessible example of a happy widow (who did not kill her own husband, mind you), Eleftheria is invaluable.
Pause is not an easy or a pleasant film to watch, but it does have individual moments and sequences that are simply transfixing, as well as a strong, well-defined painterly aesthetic. In particular, the frontal shots of the interior of Elpida’s and Costas’ apartment, with its glazed blue, slightly blurred stillness of contemporary realist paintings, are gorgeous even as they describe Elpida’s cage. And as Elpida’s imagination becomes more and more violent, as Costas dies in her mind in all manner of ways, each fantasy is connected to the preceding scenes so neatly, edited so subtly, that you find yourself holding your breath, wondering if she actually did it this time. Of course, then, the fantasy where Costas apologizes for his behavior and shows her empathy comes across as that more cutting and saddening, since at that point what we know of Costas means he would never deign to treat her so tenderly.
Director Tonia Mishiali also masterfully constructs a heartbreaking, stunning sequence late in Pause where Elpida very nearly does leave him. The music swells hopefully, almost triumphantly, fully reveling in its own sense of cliche as Elpida does her hair and makeup, shrugs on a pretty dress, grabs a bundle of hidden banknotes, packs a suitcase and leaves—only to return, strip off the trappings of the woman she wishes she could be, and chop up onions to mask her tears.
It would be overly simplistic to say that Pause is about menopause as an opportunity for a wife to envision, however disturbingly, a life without an awful husband, but the fact that the film opens with Elpida seeking treatment for menopause is certainly not inconsequential to the narrative. The fact that Elpida is going through menopause is merely another way Costas can slice her out of his daily considerations. Elpida, removed from the potentiality of future motherhood, of fertility and desirability, is no longer of use to him except as a nurse, a cook, and a maid. Elpida’s and Costas’ own daughter is grown and has a child of her own, after all, and yet Costas would rather watch television with his blue parrot (a similar shade of blue as the blue of their walls) than talk to his daughter and grandchild. To Costas, clearly, Elpida’s condition gives him an excuse to pull away completely, to stop engaging in any kind of relationship, to inflict suffering upon Elpida almost as an afterthought.
Meanwhile, as Pause progresses, we see Elpida’s meek, lifeless gaze turn ice-cold as her fantasies turn to iron in her blood; in one scene where Costas appears to be choking on food, it’s clear she wouldn’t piss on him if he were on fire. And despite ourselves, we wonder if Elpida freeing herself by killing Costas is really how the story will end, despite knowing that these flights of fancy are precisely that—flights of fancy, almost erotic daydreams that both torment and delight Elpida. Is Elpida actually going to slip her medication into his morning coffee? Will she finally smother the bird whose screeches are an ever-present reminder of Costas’ casual neglect?
Fyrogeni (who is pretty much a dead ringer for Frances McDormand, as many other critics have noticed) is compelling to watch even when the film itself seems to move interminably slowly. Avram plays Eleftheria broadly until one sequence late in the film where she drags Elpida out to a club, offering both a compassionate, listening ear and the only moments enjoyment Elpida seems to experience over the course of the film. We only learn hints of Elpida’s past dropped into conversation—her marriage to Costas was arranged, and was always cold and loveless. But somehow, by design or through Fyrogeni’s performance, we know enough to conjure up the Elpida of the past, the Elpida who hoped every day for a little kindness from Costas until she realized it was never coming. With such a thrill of danger in its very premise, it’s hard for Pause to end satisfyingly, but its few ending scenes are a combination of outright horror and relief that are hard to let go of.
Top photo via A.B. Seahorse Film Prouctions / Pause
More from BUST