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).
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.
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.
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.