The Haunting Hours

A Grief Observed

I'm Going Home, the recent New York Film Festival entry by nonagenarian Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira, makes for a fascinating counterpoint, in that the film itself seems to be in denial. Backstage after an Ionesco play, an elderly actor (Michel Piccoli) learns that his wife and daughter have died in a car crash. There are no hysterics and little outward misery. Raising his grandson alone, the bereft protagonist soldiers on stoically through some droll, mostly work-related indignities. If movies about grief generally reflect the slow process of cauterizing the wounds, I'm Going Home inverts the arc: Oliveira reserves the killer blow for a toweringly sad final shot that alone suggests a fresh wellspring of sorrow lying in wait.

In Tsai Ming-liang's What Time Is It There? (opening next month), which also intermingles comedy and despair, a single cut after the first scene transports the actor Miao Tien (the father figure of Tsai's previous features) from a dining table to an urn in the back of a taxi. The survivors experience grief as a sort of possession. The son (Lee Kang-sheng) goes around Taipei setting clocks to Paris time; the widow (Lu Yi-ching) becomes convinced that the spirit of her husband has relocated to their fish tank and, at the peak of her delirium, loses herself in a stunning masturbatory reverie that one-ups Rampling's erotic daydream in Under the Sand.

The interactions of superstition and grief are documented with excruciating analytic rigor in Jacques Doillon's Ponette (1996). This child's-eye view of mourning centers mainly on the maddening conflagration of belief systems thrust upon a motherless four-year-old (Victoire Thivisol) by a pious relative, an agnostic dad, and a gang of imaginative, chattering peers. The film explicitly connects loss with aching vulnerability. One of its most brutal scenes has a playground bully informing the youngster that she is responsible for her mother's death.

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

The malignant by-products of grief—the guilty tendencies, the thirst for accountability—course through Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter (1997), a typically coolheaded dissection of blame and bereavement. Ian Holm's ambulance chaser travels to a wintry hamlet to investigate the litigious potential of a school bus crash: "There is no such thing as an accident," he explains to the grieving parents. Both The Sweet Hereafter and Egoyan's previous film, the haunted striptease Exotica (1995), are supremely withholding in their narrative structure, literally circling around the defining traumas at their numb centers. No other contemporary filmmaker is so attuned to the dimensions of absence, or as intrigued by the games people play in an attempt to fill the void.

Trailing the currents of grief as they ripple through a close-knit community, The Sweet Hereafter belongs to the subgenre of post-traumatic depression movies that includes Peter Weir's Fearless and, more recently, Shinji Aoyama's epic Eureka—which unites the survivors of a bus hijacking, then wallows, meanders, and fumbles its way to a plateau of transcendent equanimity. The film's reference points are culturally specific (it was made partly in response to the sarin-gas attacks in Tokyo), but from our vantage point—in the context of a society that overvalues resilience, lacks the patience for grief, and even now urges restlessly for a return to normality—the 220-minute Eureka serves as an implicit rebuke.

An even grander monument in some regards, the entire first season of David Lynch's Twin Peaks, though a murder mystery in form, was at heart a weeping elegy for homecoming queen Laura Palmer. Dead even before the first dolorous chords of Angelo Badalamenti's score wafted in, Laura remained a spectral constant throughout—first reborn as her cousin Maddy (also played by Sheryl Lee) and ultimately resurrected for a fusillade of degradation and pain in the Fire Walk With Me prequel. On TV, grief is a more common—and more communal—experience than in movies (beloved characters are frequently offered up as sweeps-month sacrifices), but the Twin Peaks pilot was sui generis, with its almost mythic river of tears and startling displays of naked parental agony: Grace Zabriskie in glass-shattering hysterics, Ray Wise's Cassavetes-worthy funeral meltdown. Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon offered a comparably provocative hour of television with last winter's episode "The Body," which opened with the heroine (Sarah Michelle Gellar) finding her mother dead of a brain aneurysm (a disconcertingly tangible demise for a show awash in fatal supernatural phenomena). Dazed, hushed (no music was used on the soundtrack), and agonizingly awkward, "The Body" painstakingly examined the way things fall apart in the confused aftermath of loss—specifically how time warps and language fails.

Series television has the nominal advantage of open-endedness. Faced with an imminent closing credit scroll, some films tunnel further into resignation (In the Bedroom deconstructs retribution by staging an act of revenge and leeching it of satisfaction), but the desired terminus is generally a state of grace, sometimes reached via a leap of faith (films as varied as What Time Is It There? and Ponette employ quasi-Dreyeresque sleights of hand). The sublime final scene of Under the Sand does both, suspended breathtakingly between mirage and miracle. Indeed, the most seemly parting gesture for a film that has spent much of its duration in mourning may be a simple acknowledgment that the emotions in question are anything but finite.

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