I’ve seen three films recently that I recommend. They all to some extent focus on loneliness and two of them look at dealing with grief.
The wonderful Certain Women is still showing at ACMI. It’s directed by Kelly Reichardt and stars Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone. I’ve listed them in the order that you see them in the film. A sense of aloneness pervades the lives of all the women these actors portray. And with one, her loneliness is palpable.
Laura Dern is a lawyer dealing with a difficult client into whose troubles she is inexorably drawn. In one scene she is pondering how clients accept advice from male solicitors more readily than the same advice from her. She struggles to express how it would be if her advice was treated the same and finally says how restful it would be. This struck a deep chord in me – how restful for women to be treated with as much authority as men! Restful sums up perfectly what she is seeking as she rushes from meetings to court hearings; fitting in some, what seems to be inadequate, intimacy during lunch breaks. She is alone. At home she has her dog. At work she is being imposed on by her desperate, bullying client, and by others who have to deal with him, like the Sheriff who makes unreasonable demands on her which she handles. But for which she receives no credit. Its just expected. We meet Michelle Williams jogging in the woods. She’s alone. A woman on a mission. She surreptitiously smokes a cigarette; an action at odds with her jogging. Deception is abroad here. Her husband and daughter seem less enthusiastic about the dream house they are building in the woods. It’s her obsession as they acquire original stone for the building and have a working bee to transport it. You wonder what will happen when she builds it. Kristen Stewart plays a harried newly graduated solicitor paying off student debt by taking an after hours class in education law. Her pupils are jaded teachers and school board members more interested in their industrial conditions rather than student rights. She is drawn to an unnamed woman, played by Lily Gladstone, who attends the classes. This woman works alone on a nearby ranch looking after horses. We follow her daily ritual in a bleak landscape bare of any comfort or human connection. Which is what she’s seeking from the young lawyer.
It’s been said in reviews and interviews, that Kelly Reichardt gives an audience space to fill in the narratives contained in her films. That is certainly the case here. In each of the three stories there are lots of bits and pieces where those watching are left to imagine what may have happened in the past and what may happen in the future. There’s no explanation of how the characters have ended up in their situations, no setting up of any particular context or fully fledged story, no tying up of loose ends. We are watching snapshots of the here and now. All of the performances are flawless. Each character comes across as completely authentic. Their personalities, and responses to where they find themselves, are conveyed through glances, body language and the many close ups of faces. Often in these close ups, the actors are expressing the inexpressible, and they do so brilliantly. Everything, including the harsh winter landscape, is beautifully filmed. You warm to, and are emotionally drawn to, these women as they go about their ordinary lives.
The film Frantz is about grief and about the loneliness that accompanies grief. On at the Nova in Carlton. Directed by Francois Ozon it stars Paula Beer as Anna, the grieving fiancee of a German soldier killed in the First World War. She is a solitary figure, eschewing life’s normal pleasures and devoting herself to daily visits to his grave. Where one day she finds a Frenchman standing in homage. It’s filmed in black and white, with occasional bursts of subdued, but beautiful colour. Which is very exactly right for the tone of the story being told. It took me until after viewing it, to work out that these instances of colour share a common emotional theme. Colour suffuses those scenes where the characters are not consumed by grief. They are rare, but important in this depiction of how grief can overtake whole lives. This artifice contributes to the highly emotional impact of the film and is especially effective in its final moments. Overall though the film is suffused with sadness. Solitary Anna is living her enclosed life in her fiancee’s family home with his mother and father. Both generous and caring characters. Pierre Niney co-stars as Adrien, the mysterious Frenchman. As with Certain Women the main characters display the complex emotions they experience through glances and expressions rather than words. There are lots of close ups of their faces. They are both very attractive but it the authenticity of their performances that is arresting. There are a lot of things being left unsaid in this movie and a lot of emotions being repressed by everyone. The Frenchman is taken into the home of the dead soldier and, after some hesitation, finally embraced as a link to the son who has died. The household is keen to hear as much as possible about the presumed friendship between the two young men prior to the war. There are flashbacks. Anna buys the pretty dress she has hitherto spurned and attends the local dance with Adrien.
All of this is taking place in a small German village. There is silent, and then not silent, disapproval of the Frenchman. And of the family’s acceptance of him. The story twists and turns and eventually moves to France. The ugly nationalism seen in the village recurs again in Paris. There are two exactly counter balanced scenes of first German and then French people singing their national anthems, arousing patriotic feelings hatred of the ‘other’. Who knew the Marseillaise had such blood thirsty lyrics. (Certainly wasn’t apparent in Casablanca!) The second half sees Anna in Paris and later rural France in pursuit of Adrien. She is in fact pursuing her own future and escape from the isolation and loneliness of duty and devotion in which she has imprisoned herself. She discovers new truths about her fiancee and about Adrien. You want her to find happiness and a fulfilled life. Can Adrien give it to her? Or have there been too many lies? Has the war left too many demons? The film leaves answers to these questions open but gives a hint. Francois Ozon, is skilled at depicting grief. I loved his other films about loss Under The Sand and Time To Leave. He draws beautiful performances from his actors. There is not a wrong note throughout. And the cinematography is wonderful. Black and white – full of shadows and shades of grey – suits the mood of the film perfectly. A does the soundtrack. A lot of the time there is no music and you have a heightened awareness of the sounds of daily life – Anna’s shoes on cobblestones, the rustling of leaves, the noise of the train, car wheels crunching on gravel. All add to the mood. This is a beautiful film.
I also enjoyed A Man Called Ove. Also at the Nova. A film that combines grief and loneliness. This was the Swedish entry for Best Foreign Language Picture. It’s unlikely hero, Ove, is a thoroughly dislikable fellow when we first meet him. And I thought it very unlikely that I would care two bits about what happens to him. He’s living in a gated community where he enforces the rules to the nth degree. Rules which he helped devise until he was removed from the committee of management. The story unfolds slowly. We see Ove being objectionable to people; both strangers in the street and those within the community. He visits his wife’s grave. Then he prepares to die. We are then taken back, to his childhood, adolescence and marriage. Which are all beautifully portrayed. The boy Ove and his loving father; a sole parent following the mother’s early death; live a bucolic, self sufficient life on the outskirts of the city. The young Ove is a bit simple minded, carrying on in his father’s job as a cleaner of trains after the father’s death. He’s an innocent abroad, unused to, and unable to comply with societal expectations. That is until he meets the lovely young woman who becomes his wife. These scenes are all portrayed in warm colours that conjure up innocence, love, happiness. A far cry from the bleaker, cold colours used to portray the life Ove is now leading.
We learn why he is now alone and why he wants to die. His attempts to bring about his demise are laced with black humour. They are interrupted. In the interludes between his increasingly lurid efforts Ove gets drawn into the chaotic life of his new neighbour. She is a beautifully drawn down to earth, Syrian refugee who ignores Ove’s rudeness. She’s a mother of two young children and heavily pregnant to her new Swedish partner, who in Ove’s eyes is a useless deadbeat. While the storyline may sound a bit hackneyed, it is all beautifully done. The story moves between Ove’s current situation, his backstory and his interactions with his neighbour. There is a lovely vignette during a driving lesson. She stalls the car intimidated by an impatient driver behind her. You’ve experienced war, managed to get through immigration and given birth!! You can drive a car!! he shouts. Tough love. It’s an emotional roller coaster. Some laugh out loud moments followed by tears.