Nine years after a savage sexual assault Ailbhe Griffith meets her attacker face-to-face in a mediated environment in The Meeting, the difficult new film from Alan Gilsenan.
From its earliest moments, The Meeting is unusual. Opening with a wordless montage that details a sexual assault through pull quotes from the victim’s statement and a series of graphic photographs we feel as though we’re dropping in on Griffith’s recurring nightmare.
Nine years after the events shown in the opening sequence, six people sit in a sparse meeting room somewhere in suburban Dublin. They are Ailbhe Griffith (playing herself), her attacker Martin Swan (Terry O’Neill) and a few other facilitators, including Dr Marie Keenan (also playing herself) who has offered ongoing support to Griffith.
The group is gathered for a restorative justice meeting. Griffith and Swan are allowed to address one another in turn. This exchange makes up for the majority of the film’s 90-minute running time.
Ailbhe Griffith’s performance, if you can call it that, is impressive in the sense that it feels realistic. Her lines come across like a series of meticulous monologues from a critically acclaimed stage play.
She sometimes trips over words or says something in an awkward way and the whole time there’s a typed script in front of her to help jog her memory. It feels genuine in a way that another film can’t approach because for Griffith this is real life. In this film, her experience is made real again.
Griffith’s initial address to Swan is delivered directly to camera. It’s not a point-of-view shot as such, but it differs from the perspective that the film takes for subsequent dialogue. This has a curious effect. It feels as though Griffith is addressing the audience rather than Swan. We are made to face up to her raw emotions.
This first-person perspective is taken up again sporadically throughout the picture, but for the most part Gilsenan’s camera focuses on incidental details and mundanity to make us feel the passage of time. We are made to sit in the room for the duration of the meeting. The audience feels every second, and with each tick of the clock tension rises.
Early on in the film, it seems that the camerawork represents Griffith’s mental state, but somewhere along the way the perspective gets muddied. When Swan is talking the camera is looser, and there’s often a swimmy motion that highlights Swan’s nervousness.
Swan’s is a tricky part to play and, unfortunately, we see O’Neill and the filmmakers struggle with making the performance coherent. After Griffith’s initial speech there’s a good moment of interplay between the two where it feels like O’Neill is improvising: his response feels naturalistic and off-the-cuff in a way that’s very convincing. Griffith’s opening statement and Swan’s response prove to be the film’s standout moment.
Throughout the picture we see extreme vulnerability from both parties. To this end, The Meeting does not function as you might expect. There is no major blow-up, Griffith does not flip the table or throw a water jug, and Swan does not act like a villain. Theatrics are kept to a minimum. The meeting itself goes without a hitch.
It’s perhaps inconvenient from a storytelling perspective that Griffith doesn’t raise her voice or confront Swan in a stagey fashion. Instead, what we see is a process at work. She presents the facts as they are, how the attack changed her life, and how she feels about it all these years later. She tells Swan that the meeting is about “making you a human”.
Swan responds in kind and we get a glimpse of his inner workings. At times the film suggests that there will be a turn in character. One red-herring shot shows Griffith’s high heel shoes touch the carpet. We expect fireworks from Swan based on an earlier chilling comment from his recollection of the attack, but this passes without so much as a fizzle.
It’s surprising to see that as the meeting progresses their conversation becomes oddly affable. Their bond is not one of friendship but of trauma, but here, it doesn’t look that different.
With this shift in tone the film’s direction turns experimental. There’s a strange moment of intercutting where the characters begin to resemble one another. Here we see undertones of Bergman that grow to be overtones at the close of the film, but I’ll come to that later.
At times, you might feel as though the reality of the film has given way to reverie, so errant is the camera, as it flits around the room finding focus on the paintwork, or a vase or, most frequently, an untouched stack of bourbon creams on the table.
I wonder how this version of the Griffith-and-Swan meeting compares to the actual event. Was there this same air of cordiality? Did a strange kind of warmth gradually grow between the two as it does in this re-enactment? Can this form of mediation really be as positive as The Meeting shows it to be?
Obviously, all we have is what’s shown to us by Gilsenan, and that’s why the close of the film is such a head-scratcher.
As the session draws to an end, Griffith leaves the room. Swan is finally willing to take a bite out of a bourbon cream. Maybe the implication here is that he can finally begin to live his life without the guilt of his past deeds?
Gilsenan then cuts to an aerial view of the meeting room. The camera pulls back further and further to reveal a soundstage.
Then we see Griffith walking through a film studio, past cameras and lighting equipment, across a green-screen stage and out a door into a wall of white light. The second-to-last shot is a close-up of her face, staring at the audience as she did at the outset of the meeting.
With this shot our understanding of the film and its reality is thrown out of whack. A moment ago, Ailbhe Griffith was playing Ailbhe Griffith, now she is the Ailbhe Griffith, but the cameras are still rolling, is this is still part of the movie?
Foregrounding the filmmaking process doesn’t lessen the emotional impact of the preceding 90 minutes, but it leaves us with the niggling suggestion that Griffith’s happy ending is, to the filmmaker at least, a movie-magic trick.
I mentioned Bergman earlier, and I was thinking of that moment in Persona where we get this jarring view of the camera crew before the film reel burns up. That sequence comes at a time when Alma is questioning her identity. In The Meeting, Gilsenan tries at something similar, but falls short. It feels like a needless “gotcha” moment.
There are certainly good intentions behind The Meeting’s exploration and dramatisation of the restorative-justice process. Ailbhe Griffith’s involvement makes for a captivating, hazy mix of reality and performance, but in applying a similar approach to the close of the film, we end up in confounding territory.
Leave five minutes early and you’ll be left with a remarkable film. Stay to the end and you’ll feel nonplussed.