The Haunting Hours

A Grief Observed

If grief, as the commonplace goes, defies description and comprehension, it is emphatically resistant to cinematic representation as well. How to capture, let alone illuminate, a condition at once torrential and aphasic, wayward and ritualistic, monolithic and amorphous? Furthermore, a movie founded on the presence of absence poses its own kind of metaphysical conundrum. How exactly do you trace the contours of a void?

Are these easier questions to answer now than they were three months ago? The very notion of a "portrait of grief" unavoidably brings to mind the WTC obituaries that have been running in the Times since the attacks (the meticulous perusal of which, for so many New Yorkers, constitutes its own helpless daily rite). A work of art that doubles as a document of loss tends to be, like these memorials, unassuming in tone and heroic in scope. Any film that dares to plunge into the fugue state of mourning bears the responsibility of fidelity. Its inescapable obligation is not catharsis but the assiduous transcription of the anguish and bewilderment endured by the bereaved.

Movies about grief have been plentiful in recent years, even more so in the last few months. There may be no coherent explanation for the upsurge. The means and ends in these films are sundry, even if the core experience remains the same: Krzysztof Kieslowski's Blue (grief as liberty); Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother (grief as catalyst for Catholic pilgrimage); Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides (grief as obsessive act of commemoration); Marc Forster's recent Everything Put Together (grief as challenge to suburban middle-class cant) and his new film, next month's Monster's Ball (grief as counterweight to Deep South racism); Nanni Moretti's Palme d'Or-winning The Son's Room (grief as emotional laxative); Peter Mullan's Orphans (grief as long night's journey into day).

Still frames of depression: In the Bedroom's Wilkinson
photo: Miramax
Still frames of depression: In the Bedroom's Wilkinson

Todd Field's In the Bedroom and François Ozon's Under the Sand, two of the most devastating films in recent memory, are perhaps the mightiest riptides in the maelstrom. The austere plangency of both titles is instructive. The films employ similar strategies: simulating the vacuum via stark, empirical juxtaposition and an almost tactile attention to the minutiae of daily life. In the Bedroom (currently playing) concerns Matt and Ruth (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek), a middle-aged couple whose marriage begins to implode when they lose their only son and retreat into their own private, roiling spheres of grief. In last spring's Under the Sand, Charlotte Rampling plays Marie, an English-lit professor in Paris, whose husband, Jean (Bruno Cremer), vanishes one day while they are on summer vacation in what could be an accidental drowning, a suicide, or an escape to a new life. Both films open by quietly establishing the rhythms of the everyday, each mundane moment imbued with a burnished clarity. Grief, when it arrives, is portrayed as the ultimate violation of those rhythms, the abrupt extinguishing of those moments.

Even as it hints at the horror to come, In the Bedroom lingers dotingly on college-aged Frank (Nick Stahl), allowing the viewer to form an attachment to the character (the flip side of which is, of course, fear of loss), and etching with some complexity the boy's relationships with each of the people who will spend the remainder of the movie in mourning. Field depicts the immediate aftershock of loss in a boldly languorous middle section: virtual still frames of depression punctuated by fades to black. The syntax doesn't elide the pain, but on the contrary has the effect of attenuating it: We hope each fade will span an eternity, but return time and again to find that grieving is still very much in progress. Field is especially astute about the cruel reminders that can trigger a heartache. In Frank's room, Matt notices the imprint of his son's head on a pillow; Ruth, sorting the mail, comes upon a sweepstakes letter addressed to Frank.

Under the Sand begins with Marie and Jean driving to their country house, the trip blanketed in the comfortable and complacent silences born of half a lifetime's shared experience. Jean goes missing about 15 minutes into the film, but the beautifully executed prologue (not to mention Cremer's sheer physical bulk) ensures that his absence is felt profoundly. Ozon's movie wrestles with a dilemma that has haunted New Yorkers for three months now: How do you begin grieving when there is no body? Essentially ghost stories, tales of grief often enlist the relevant concepts of haunting, possession, and exorcism. In Under the Sand, the lack of corporeal evidence facilitates Marie's denial, and at home in Paris, months later, she has seemingly hallucinated her husband back into existence. The resurrected Jean is an apparition somewhere between the friendly, closure-promoting phantasms of afterlife love stories like Truly Madly Deeply or Ghost and the eerie stranger who may or may not be a projection of grief in Don DeLillo's recent novel, The Body Artist (the newly widowed title character discovers that a mysterious man has taken up residence in her house).

Grief has been characterized as a state of perversely heightened consciousness; it's appropriate then that Ozon has Marie read to her class from Virginia Woolf's The Waves (she even recites Woolf's suicide note to a bemused suitor, without acknowledging the parallels between the author's death and Jean's disappearance). With his focus on the quotidian (exacting sometimes to the point of disorientation) and his poised attempts at a kind of secular mysticism, Ozon takes his cue from Woolf. In the absence of her prismatic language, the film rests on its approximate visual equivalent: Rampling's luminous performance, which suggests a trance of ruefully imperfect denial, the spell broken all too often by crippling pangs of awareness and self-knowledge.

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