Niclas Larsson’s strange and beautiful feature directorial debut Mother, Couch is a love letter to metaphor.
Based on the Swedish novel Mamma i Soffa by Jerker Virdborg, Larsson adapted the script into Mother, Couch and immediately found success by shopping it around in Hollywood.
The film stars Ewan McGregor (Beginners, Star Wars franchise) as David, whose mother, played by Ellen Burstyn (The Last Picture Show, The Exorcist), sits down on a couch in a furniture store called Oak Beds and refuses to get up. His siblings are played by Rhys Ifans (Notting Hill, Harry Potter franchise) and Lara Flynn Boyle (Twin Peaks, Wayne’s World), with Lake Bell (In a World, Bless This Mess) appearing as David’s wife, and Taylor Russell as the daughter of the owner of Oak Beds, played by F. Murray Abraham.
“I think clarity is kind of an overrated tool,” the writer-director tells MovieMaker.
Making Mother, Couch
It’s a testament to the film’s gripping emotional narrative, which deals with family trauma, anxiety, and grief, that all of Larsson’s top casting choices said yes without hesitation.
“I like when [a movie is] intellectually challenging — however, it needs to be entertaining all the time, and I think a good joke is entertaining and a good metaphor is entertaining,” Larsson says. “Especially when you discover the small keys the director and the screenwriter leave for you. It’s incredibly rewarding.”
For inspiration, he drew on classic films by Billy Wilder, the mid-20th century director known for classics like Some Like It Hot, Sunset Boulevard, and The Apartment.
“I’m a big fan of the old classics, like the Billy Wilders and all that. When you rewatch those movies, you just discover more and more. And I think that’s such a gift, in a way,” Larsson says. “I really miss that kind of storytelling and that kind of bravery in filmmaking, where maybe it takes two times, three times, to really grasp the story and understand what’s going on. It’s a thrill to me.”
Storytelling through metaphor is especially refreshing at a time when attention spans are steadily shortening due to short-form video content on TikTok and Instagram. But Larsson doesn’t feel the need to dumb anything down for modern audiences — in fact, he strives to do the opposite.
“I treat the audience as the smartest person in the room. I think they should be treated that way. So I don’t shy away from metaphors,” he says. “If you watch it the second time, you will find a ton. I hope every line and every scene is like a hidden thing.”
But if you read the script for Mother, Couch, you won’t find the metaphors in writing.
“It’s funny, because the people who went from the script phase and read all my drafts and are now experiencing the final film, I get a lot of people saying, ‘I didn’t read that in the script.’ I’m like, ‘No, because if I wrote it out, we would have done a big thing out of it. It’s not supposed to be spelled out, really,” he says.
Some of the film’s best jokes are easy to miss, but have multi-layered meanings. One example is the moment when F. Murray Abraham’s character points to the letter opener stuck in Ewan McGregor’s back and says, “The tiny ones are the worst.”
“I love subtleties like that when I watch movies,” Larsson says. “That’s one of those lines where not a lot of people will laugh, but it’s true — getting a tiny knife from your mother hurts more than a real stab.”
“I think movies are a perfect medium for metaphors because it’s visual. You don’t need to show much other than the knife in the back, and you get the hint of what that means,” he adds.
Whether everyone in the audience understands each metaphor and joke doesn’t concern him.
“Some jokes are for me,” he says.
Prior to Mother, Couch, Larsson has made several short films, including 2013’s “Vatten,” which earned the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Göteborg Film Festival, and 2015’s “The Magic Dinner” starring Alicia Vikander and Anna Wintour.
Mother, Couch played at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 9.
Main Image: Taylor Russell and Ewan McGregor in Mother, Couch