TIFF 2023 'Mother, Couch': Ewan McGregor leads most unique, unusual movie at Toronto festival

"These sort of films need to always ask, where are we?" writer/director Niclas Larsson said

Ewan McGregor in Mother, Couch from writer/director Niclas Larsson (Chayse Irvin)
Ewan McGregor in Mother, Couch from writer/director Niclas Larsson (Chayse Irvin)

Ewan McGregor, Ellen Burstyn, F. Murray Abraham, Lara Flynn Boyle, Rhys Ifans and Taylor Russell lead one of the quirkiest and unique movies at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), Mother, Couch from writer/director Niclas Larsson.

For his feature directorial debut, Larsson adapted Jerker Virdborg’s book "Mamma I Soffa." Largely set in a furniture store, David (McGregor) is a stressed out son trying to get his stubborn mother (Burstyn) to get off a couch in the store and go home. His siblings Gruffudd (Rhys) and Linda (Boyle) try to assist David in figuring out why she won't leave.

Store manager Taylor (Russell) lets them stay in the store and David ends up being there overnight with his mother, but when Taylor's father who owns the store arrives, played by F. Murray Abraham, he's not so inviting. Abraham's character even gets to the point where he wants to cut the couch with a chainsaw.

While a summary like that may make this film seem somewhat simplistic, that's not the case at all. Nothing you see at the beginning of the film is really as it seems, revealed as the story progresses. The name of the game in Mother, Couch is misdirection and surrealism as Larsson explores this dark, but oftentimes funny, family dynamic.

Larsson stressed to Yahoo Canada that even the title sequence is a misdirection, with "ugly" green text shown over a beautiful sky.

"What I wanted to tell is just look, it's not going to be a beautiful sky. It's going to be really annoying," Larsson said.

"I stole it from [Stanley Kubrick] in The Shining, ... it's the ugliest fu—king title sequence in the world and knowing how picky he is with stuff like that, it's obviously intentional."

Looking at Larsson's source material, the filmmaker said the novel was so "profound" and made him feel like he could really "go anywhere" in the story.

"[The mother's] so stuck and so stubborn that I can just pour all my own sh-t onto whatever's going on," Larsson said.. "And I did so."

"The film and the book are very different, but I think the core is very similar. It's about trauma and grief and ... that just spoke to me."

Ewan McGregor, Lara Flynn Boyle and Rhys Ifans in writer/director Niclas Larsson's Mother, Couch
Ewan McGregor, Lara Flynn Boyle and Rhys Ifans in writer/director Niclas Larsson's Mother, Couch

Lara Flynn Boyle's 'Mother, Couch' look inspired by Courtney Love

A massive highlight in Mother, Couch is the delightfully witty relationship between the siblings, with absolutely stellar performances from the whole cast.

McGregor, Boyle and Ifans all do look like they could be related, which is sort of poked fun at with Bella actually saying in the film that they don't look alike.

Larsson highlighted that Boyle and Burstyn, in particular, do end up looking alike in the film.

"Lara, she's famous for having brown, beautiful dark hair," the filmmaker said. "I had Courtney Love as a reference."

"I'm like, 'OK I'm going to cast you in this movie, but I want you to go blonde. Can you do that for me?' She's like, 'I'll do anything for you baby, of course.' ... It took her two days to go blonde."

Larsson really leaned into that similar look for Boyle and Burstyn, including a particularly striking moment when there's a shot of Boyle from the back, and the front of Burstyn, which really reflects that likeness.

For Burstyn, in particular, Larsson was also managing working with one of the most famed method actors in Hollywood.

"It was an incredible experience working with her," Larsson said.

"We made a pact because she's a very sort of spiritual person and she's like, 'You have to promise me that we never return to her when we wrap.' So I made a promise to her to never do any ADR or never do any reshoots. Because when she's out, she's out."

Mother, Couch from writer/director Niclas Larsson (Chayse Irvin)
Mother, Couch from writer/director Niclas Larsson (Chayse Irvin)

The balance Larsson really had to strike with Mother, Couch is grounding the story in the reality, while also navigating these strong surrealist elements that makes the film more offbeat, unusual and specific.

"These sort of films need to always ask, where are we? And what reality are we?" Larsson said. "I decided early to stay in reality, so everything that happens has to be, 'that thing happened.'"

"I directed all the actors like no, this is actually happening. I think the beauty is the grayscale in life, always. Life is never black or white. Right? So metaphors shouldn't be black and white either. It should be this blend."

The script for Mother, Couch is paced in a way that makes you feel invested in this story, while it's likely that the film may be too obscure for some people's taste. But Larsson has proved himself a particularly alluring and stylish director. For us, Larsson is very much a filmmaker to watch coming out of the Toronto film festival.