Tag Archives: grief

Charlotte

Charlotte Salomon knew how lucky she was to escape Germany during the war, fleeing to the south of France between 1941 and 1943 where she sought refuge at a friend’s estate. She may have left Germany, but she knew she couldn’t outrun everything. Some things follow you no matter where you go.

Family haunted Charlotte from either side of the border, a long string of suicided ghosts making her question her own fate, as well as from the camps of the Holocaust where relatives have disappeared steadily. In hiding from the Nazis, Charlotte meets and marries her love, but she still can’t shake her own sense of mortality. She spends her days painting frantically, motivated to leave a record. Though young, she’s determined to paint her own autobiography, nearly 1000 images, memorializing those she’d lost and paying tribute to her own strife.

Charlotte Salomon was murdered in a gas chamber shortly after her arrival at Auschwitz in October 1943. She was 26 and pregnant. Like so many, Charlotte was supposed to be forgotten, wiped from history, but after her death, her family unearthed the paintings she’d carefully packed away.

This animated film is a tribute to her life and to her work. It honours her memory but remembers her as a real person, a young woman and talented artist who should have had a long future in front of her. Not unlike her own graphic style, the film uses bold, colourful images to recount Charlotte’s short life.

A certain film once posited that every time a bell rang, an angel got some wings. I’m of the belief that every time you watch this movie, a Nazi ghost gets a pineapple shoved up his rear. Do your part. Don’t let her memory fade. Marion Cotillard, Keira Knightley, Mark Strong, Sam Claflin, and Jim Broadbent lend their voices to make this film come alive, and if you need further enticement, I hear the pineapple crop’s particularly robust this year.

Charlotte is an official selection of TIFF 2021.

Elulu

Elulu is Gabriel Verdugo Soto’s passion project. He worked on it solo for 8 years, pouring it out directly from his heart to the movie screen.

Primarily animated, Elulu mixes real photo backgrounds with animated 2D effects and 3D characters. It has no dialogue to speak of. it is an exploration of grief and goodbye like you’ve never seen.

A man returns to his childhood home after the death of his mother and finds that mourning her is complex and non-linear. In between every day tasks like feeding his cat and pursuing a career in theoretical physics, this man is grieving, inspired by the objects and spaces last occupied by his mother. Her spirit seems to live in them, as if her consciousness had somehow been absorbed by them, a shadow of her life and memories remaining, leaving a gateway for the man to remember and celebrate her. His thoughts devolve into memory, revisionism, and fantasy, the stories recalled from childhood resurfacing, and his mother herself found living in one of his paintings (I did warn you this was going to be different).

As for Elulu, you’ll find that he is a magical caterpillar come to ask something of a grieving man. But he also inspires the man to discover love, connection, past and present from different angles. Elulu is a physical manifestation of string theory. You heard me: a string theory magic caterpillar. Don’t be intimidated; Elulu, the film, is meant to be felt more than understood. It’s like the wind. And while I won’t pretend to define string theory for you, let’s just agree that it at least posits the existence of more than just the dimensions we’re familiar with (length, width, breadth, time). String theory contends that elementary particles aren’t just mathematical points but tiny strings which require not 3 but 10 spatial coordinates in addition to time, but most of these, sometimes interpreted as ‘alternative universes’ are simply too small to observe. But Elulu seems to navigate these, and helps the man drift between physical and metaphysical worlds, finding that his deceased mother still exists in some of them.

I don’t mean to make this sound complicated, I only want to give you a tast4e of Soto’s ambition and the borderless, limitless world in which his protagonist exists. With flashbacks and magical realism, we make the jump between the observable universe in which his mother is dead, into pockets of time and space where she might never die. It’s a comfort and a salve. But the film itself isn’t complicated at all as long as you treat it like a dream in which rules simply don’t exist. The narrative is what we make it, the story can change without notice, the images aren’t necessarily direct representations. It’s what you feel that matters, what the stories and images evoke for you. Elulu is both emotional and cerebral, operating on a higher plane than most other films, but it still feels accessible and looks beautiful and strange. Soto’s meditation on consciousness and grief will have different meanings for each viewer, making it a unique film experience and a wondrous exploration of life’s mysteries and the nature of existence.

Elulu is an official selection of the Ottawa International Animation Festival.

The Starling

Lilly and Jack Maynard are going through hell. Their baby girl died about a year ago, and Jack (Chris O’Dowd) has suffered a break down, attempted suicide, and has been hanging out in a psychiatric hospital ever since, unable to shake his depression. His wife Lilly (Melissa McCarthy) gardens. She works too, and commutes to visit her husband, and takes care of the house, and generally does her best to get on with a life that imploded around her.

The Starling is about finding that little spark, that one reason to keep going when everything feels impossible, even if it means leaving everything else, or someone else, behind.

Melissa McCarthy does wonderful work as a childless mother, an almost widow, a woman who is dangerously untethered but deprived of the usual expressions of grief. With her husband casting himself as primary mourner, Lilly’s left to grasp at the leftovers, never one to ask for much. Yet she, too, is in pain. And that pain always manifests itself one way or another. Nothing stays buried forever. But with the help of an aggressive bird and a sagacious veterinarian (Kevin Kline), Lilly is reminded that all we need is a little hope. Hope is everywhere, it can be so small, tiny even, found sometimes in the strangest and most unexpected of places, but the trick is: you have to be open to it.

Director Theodore Melfi takes on the greatest loss that we know as humans: that of a child. We can intuitively understand that such a loss opens up a sink hole of sadness, but unless we’ve been sucked down ourselves, it’s impossible to truly understand its depths. What’s more, we don’t have any practical advice for pulling someone out. It must be terrifying to be down there, and even scarier when a couple falls down separate holes. But despite this heaviest of topics, The Starling has an uplifting momentum, thanks in part to a wonderful cast, and of course the indominable spirit of woman.

The Starling is an official TIFF 2021 selection.

It is scheduled to be released in a limited theatre run on September 17, 2021, prior to streaming on Netflix on September 24, 2021.

Mothering Sunday

Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young) grew up in an orphanage and was turned out at the age of 14 and pressed into a life of service. She works as a maid in post-WW1 England for the Nivens (Olivia Colman & Colin Firth), who lost both sons in the war. Their dearest friends the Sheringhams also lost two sons in the war but have one remaining – Paul (Josh O’Connor). All 5 boys grew up together and were quite close. The Nivens have come to think of Paul as a little bit theirs.

Jane, too, has come to think of Paul as a little bit hers because they’re having secret sex at every opportunity, which are admittedly few. In addition to the upstairs-downstairs wrinkle, there’s also the small problem of Paul’s being engaged to marry (someone else). He’s actually engaged to a woman who was meant to become the Nivens’ daughter-in-law, but now goes to Paul, by default. As you can imagine, it’s not the most romantic of engagements, but he considers it his duty as sole survivor to do what the others cannot.

The movie looks gorgeous, of course. This is what British cinema does best. But it’s also completely morose, unrelentingly gloomy, and unforgivably languid. Grief and loss shimmer insistently in the corners, but the British propensity for a stiff upper lip prevails, and all these grief-stricken parents do their best to muddle on in their big empty homes that feel more like memorials.

Traditionally, before mother’s day, mothering Sunday was a day off you gave the servants to go visit their mums. The title used here makes us painfully aware of so many sad circumstances. What is a mother when all her children are dead? And what is a daughter when her unknown mother gave her up? In her fog of despair, Mrs. Niven tells Jane how lucky she is to have been “born bereaved;” with no parents or family to lose, Jane will never know the pain of their loss. Being motherless is a gift, so says a woman drowning in grief and cynicism, Jane is free because she has no-one to care about. It’s both true and not true (not to mention a pretty awful thing to say, though we’ll forgive her because she’s completely heart broken but trying plenty hard not to let the mask slip). Jane has no mother to visit on Mothering Sunday, but that leaves her free for a fuckfest with her lover. And though Paul’s just a fortnight away from marrying (this is likely their last encounter), their time together isn’t tinged with sadness. They linger over each other with fondness, naked and unafraid. But Jane isn’t going to find a happily ever after here (nor, for that matter, is Paul). At most, suggests a future Jane, played brilliantly if briefly by Glenda Jackson, it is fodder for a brilliant writing career.

Unfortunately, the film lingers over literally everything, and though there are some brilliant bits, they are too few and too far between to really gather momentum or build emotion. The whole thing comes off as rather cold, an old woman’s memory of a torrid love affair that’s lost its heat.

Mothering Sunday is an official selection of TIFF 2021.

Supernova

You were looking to have a cry today, weren’t you?

Sam and Tusker are driving around England in an RV, and I suppose that’s not technically the sad part, but honey, it is. The sad part is that it’s basically a farewell tour, visiting all their special spots and friends and family along the way. No one’s dying, but Tusker’s thinking about it, while he still can.

Diagnosed with dementia a couple of years ago, Tusker (Stanley Tucci) may not have a lot of good time left, and they’re determined to make the most of it. But with Tusker losing little bits at a time, every moment is tinged with sadness for Sam (Colin Firth), who is losing his great love, and with hopelessness for Tusker, who is powerless to stop it.

Supernova is a quiet and intimate movie, perfect for getting close to these characters – though maybe don’t get too attached. Tusker has a secret plan to avoid the worst of what’s coming. Writer-director Harry Macqueen allows them to explore their grief and loss in a multitude of ways. Tucci and Firth are of course the reason to watch and they’re really terrific. Tragedy is always lurking at the seams but this is really a story about time – the time they’ve shared, and the time they have left. It’s bittersweet, deeply moving, but never maudlin. The film is restrained and subtle, allowing Tucci and Firth to shine until it breaks your little heart.

Sophie Jones

Sixteen is already a difficult age, with lots of challenges to navigate, but Sophie Jones has just lost her mother, so the regular rhythms of adolescence are tinged with grief and loss, which somehow makes normal rites of passage seem more trivial, yet each holds the potential power to make her forget, even for a moment, her deep sadness. Sophie (Jessica Barr) is throwing herself rather recklessly from one milestone to another, hoping to pierce through the numbness of grief and feel something, feel anything.

Sophie’s nervous giggle belies the fact that she’s still a young girl, lacking the maturity to handle all that life has dumped in her lap, not that she’s got a choice. Barr herself is still a young woman, a convincing teenager, playing the role with a natural authenticity. She and cousin Jessie Barr co-wrote the script, and Jessie Barr directs, informed by their own experiences with grief.

Sophie’s primary means of coping is boys, of course, who mostly offer comfort mostly of a physical sort. Trying her best to wear a brave face at school and at home, grief sneaks out in unpredictable ways, heightening emotions that are already fully charged. We float through time as if in a fog; the film is mostly muted, visually and emotionally, enveloping us in a very specific, highly intimate universe.

Some may find Sophie Jones to be a slow watch, maybe not the most exciting, but it’s honest in its portrayal of mourning, raw in its loss of innocence, in more ways than one. The Barr cousins prove themselves to be immensely talented, and if you don’t mind a slow-burn character study, this is a very good one.

Berlinale 2021: Language Lessons

Hello from the Berlin International Film Festival, streaming live from my bedroom for the first time ever. I’ve got a full slate of great movies ahead of me this week, or they better be after the very first one set the bar extremely high.

Adam’s husband Will gifts him with Spanish lessons. Two years worth of Spanish lessons! Hope you like them, Adam, because this is quite a commitment. Adam (Mark Duplass) is still getting used to the lavish lifestyle Will’s success affords them, and the time and freedom to pursue such projects at leisure. Cariño (Natalie Morales) is the Spanish teacher, beaming in from Costa Rica. Over the next two years, they’ll come to know each other very well through the miracle of conversation. Adam’s Spanish grammar may leave something to be desired but when you spend dedicated time in simple conversation with another human being, over time a relationship is cultivated almost as if by magic. Bonding over their own personal tragedies, the two are perhaps a little surprised by the friendship that seems to grow organically between them. They’ve never been in the same country let alone the same room, but their bond feels genuine and strong. Is it real, can it be trusted?

Natalie Morales directs the story she and Duplass wrote for themselves. It’s an interesting exploration of human attachment and what it means to connect authentically. We experience their relationship solely through the split screen of their online connection. I worried this conceit may wear thin over the course of a feature-length film, but these two share such compelling chemistry, and go to such lengths to entertain and stimulate each other, I found myself not minding it at all.

Perhaps most amazingly, this spontaneous friendship is allowed to remain platonic throughout the film. Adam and Cariño have shared pain and grief in their backgrounds, and the fact that they can find a way to reach out despite it is a tenuous little miracle it feels a privilege to witness. Trust is of course one of the most universal human hardships, and it feels elemental to watch it be birthed and nurtured on screen. Adam and Cariño are an endearing but flawed pair; their simple humanity is what’s touching. Language Lessons is disarming in the most delightful way.

Wander Darkly

Well this was unexpected.

Adrienne (Sienna Miller) and Matteo (Diego Luna) are new parents on their first night out post baby, half giddy, half drunk on the mere thought of that first drink, half on edge because things have been tense, half fighting before they even reach the party. Mathematically that’s too (two) many halves, so let’s just say it’s not the fun and fancy free night out they’d envisioned, and that’s before they get in that brutal car wreck that half kills them both.

I’m only half being cheeky. The thing is, Adrienne wakes up dead, or believes herself to be dead, despite assurances from others that she isn’t, which leaves the couple in a rather, erm, surreal situation. Together they revisit the highlights and lowlights of their troubled relationship, trying to piece together a version of their life where it all makes sense, is all worth while. Whether your soul is actually in limbo or you’re simply experiencing a psychotic break due to trauma, taking such a stark account of one’s life is always a harrowing and naked experience. Interestingly, we get to see the major milestones of their relationship from both sides. There is no impartial witness in a relationship, no official accounting of who is right and who is wrong. But in tallying up their love and their losses, the grief and the guilt, the score actually seems besides the point.

I often have a low tolerance for movies (and stories generally) that go out of their way to be obtuse but this one managed to keep my interest, and harder still, my positive regard. Wander Darkly is effective and enticing, drawing us in to a mystery but always keeping enough momentum that we’re never bogged down in the not-knowing. The film is introspective, ruminative, poetic, experimental. Its sliding timelines isn’t always easy to keep track of, but magnetic performances from Miller and Luna smooth the ugly transitions. Miller mines for emotional gold and finds lots of gems along the way. Luna, meanwhile, runs the whole spectrum from good guy to bad and back again.

A romance crossed with a supernatural thriller, Wander Darkly is unpredictable and uneven, but writer-director Tara Miele has something to add about the complexity of relationships, and even this startling story line has plenty to relate to.

Sundance 2021: Mass

I’ve seen a unicorn rip a man’s guts out, an axe chop a man’s toes off, and an eyeball skewered on a sharp metal tent peg. It’s Sundance, and I’ve seen some shit. And yet nothing prepared me to watch Mass, a movie about four middle aged adults sitting around a folding table in a church rental space.

It’s hard to say who’s more reluctant to be there – Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd), or Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton). Richard and Linda’s son killed Jay and Gail’s in a school shooter incident years ago, and this is an attempt for healing, or closure, or something other than the smothering pain they’ve been living in.

One room, 4 people, 110 minutes of emotionally exhausting confrontation, conversation, and contemplative silence. A movie like this either succeeds or it doesn’t based on two things: the script, and the performances.

The script, by director Fran Kranz, is restrained, nimble, as revealing as it is concealing. It’s almost voyeuristic to sit in on such an intimate and fraught conversation, but while we think we know where the lines will be drawn, Kranz shows the grief, victimhood, and aftermath of a mass school shooting is as complex as the event itself. It is natural to want to identify causes and assign blame, but here, in this room, guilt and innocence overlap.

Kranz is himself an actor with an intuitive sense of how dialogue can rise and fall, and how grief can express itself in more than just words. In this claustrophobic space, all four performances are committed; there is trauma and sorrow on both sides of the table. Each has lost a son. But Jay and Gail persist. They want, nay, they need to know: did Richard and Linda see this coming? Is there something they could and should have done? There isn’t going to be an easy answer here, just pain across four faces. Recrimination, bitterness, anger, empathy, and loss. There are heavy burdens in this room and perhaps Kranz is a little inclined to tidy them up by the end, but grief isn’t something you fix or get over. It’s something you learn to live with – the question is, will this conversation help them do so, and if not, can anything?

Love Sarah

Sarah and her best friend Isabella (Shelley Conn) were on the verge of opening up their very own bakery, a long time shared aspiration, when Sarah died tragically, leaving behind unfulfilled dreams and a lease that Isabella was now responsible for alone, despite having lost her baker, an essential element in most bakeries, you’ll find.

Sarah’s aimless daughter Clarissa (Shannon Tarbet) and her estranged mother Mimi (Celia Imrie) decide to join her in Sarah’s stead. And Sarah’s ex, Matthew (Rupert Penry-Jones), shows up too, thank goodness, because this bakery was still very much in need of a baker, although it turns out Isabella is perfectly capable of doing the baking, she just lacked the confidence. But that’s not all Matthew’s contributing to the bakery! He’s also putting out daddy vibes, leaving Clarissa to question whether he might the mystery father she’s never known and her mother never revealed. Oh, and he makes the pretty pastries of course, which do indeed look good enough to eat, so if food porn is what you’re after, this movie’s got loads, presented rather prettily on a buffet of white platters. But for some reason, they’re just not selling. The bakery makes no money at all until they decide to rebrand and start baking up international delights to lure in London’s many and varied immigrants.

The bakery thriving or failing is almost secondary to these characters’ healing, which they’re all needing to slightly different extents. Healing takes different forms of course – romance, success, family, forgiveness – and it’s not just the bakery at work but the fact that these four people have found each other in their hour of need and created a community for themselves that fosters connection and leaves everyone just a little less isolated with their grief or their loneliness.

On a scale from “microwaving for one” to “molecular gastronomy,” Love Sarah is canned pasta sauce, not particularly complex or memorable, but easy and comforting. It’s sweet, it’s got wonderful performances, it feels good in a heartening, borderline inspirational way. It’s very watchable, and would in fact pair well with a nice slice of cake and a tall glass of milk.