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Too often relegated to one-night-only minifests, the short films that wind up nominated at awards time can be a good place to look for the sort of originality and experimentation that big-budget affairs don’t dare mess with. Case in point: the shatteringly crisp Oscar-nominated short Just Before Losing Everything (Avant que de Tout Pedre), in which debut French filmmaker Xavier Legrand foregoes histrionics and high drama in favor of finger-snap precision to convey the very particular dynamic of being held hostage by an ever-present threat of violence.
The film unspools in something close to real time, as a mother collects her son and daughter from their hiding spots at a bridge and a bus stop, and brings them to her job at a megamart. It may be clear, early on, what exactly is unfolding, but that by no means lessens a heart-pounding sense of foreboding. Even the very banalities of events as the woman’s colleagues rally to her aid—a meeting with the boss, payroll negotiations, a cafeteria lunch with the kids—heighten the almost unbearable sense of dread that Legrand’s expert slow-burn pacing creates. When the worst finally threatens, it is only by slipping once more into the skin she is trying to shed—this time by her own volition—that the mother can attempt to navigate to safety.
Legrand does his own navigating through a touchy topic, shrewdly keeping his focus narrow to laser in on the damage done when the normal rhythms of everyday life, at home and in the community, are searingly disrupted. The result is a quick and visceral snapshot of how suspense can become a way of life, and how hope and fear involve unsettlingly similar sensations.