My blog entries are usually long-winded and analytical, so I'll take an ever so brief break from that and just mention two incredibly touching films that I've seen in the past few weeks. Movies are so rarely affecting without resorting to tired and familiar conventions that it seems important to mention them.
The first is 'Once', which you might vaguely know as the Irish musical that stars two musicians with one previous film role between them. The back-story is charming enough in and of itself: a modest production with a $1.5 million budget, they lost their funding when Cillian Murphy - who was going to play the lead - dropped out. (Apparently because he didn't want to act opposite a teenager with no acting experience or sing in the high range that the songs demanded.) Putting together a new budget at one-tenth the original size, the director filled the role with the Glen Hansard - his friend and former band-mate, but also the singer who wrote the music. Explains the director, "Though I was initially thinking of using a good actor who could half sing, I quickly realized I should do it the other way around and get a good singer who could half act."
I could go on about the movie itself, I suppose - about the way in which Hansard and Irglova are often shot from a distance in crowded streets to make it seem as if we're passersby or voyeurs who have stumbled onto their awkward conversations, about how raw and immediate the music is, and mostly about how unbelievably complicated their lives and relationships are so as to make the expected 'happy' ending utterly impossible - but I think it's enough that I simply say that much. There's a cute, if initially confusing, scene about halfway through the film where the two take a scooter ride to the country and Hansard's character asks whether Irglova's is still in love with her husband, who she's separated from. She says something in Czech, smiles, and walks away. That sort of ambiguity, of feelings left unsaid or implicit, gives us a bit of credit as smart viewers - which is always a good thing, and is always more satisfying. (It turns out that she said precisely what we want to believe she said: 'No, I love you.')
The second film is 'Away From Her', which is, shockingly, Sarah Polley's feature-length directorial (and screenwriting) debut. I say shockingly, first of all, because I never would have though that anyone would choose a love story about Alzheimer's to launch their career as a director, much less that she would do it so beautifully. There are the sort of writing hiccups that you would expect of a first-timer - all of the bit players are a too self-conscious and intelligent, saying exactly what Gordon Pinsent's character needs to hear at exactly the right moment - but I honestly can't identify anything in the pacing or framing of the narrative that struck me as wrong. Julie Christie is incredible as the wife, blurring the line between playfulness and deception in those scenes where her character (seems to?) forget something or (pretends to?) surprise us with the recounting of a memory. She's so ridiculously regal and charismatic that we're sucked in when she's toys with Pinsent early in the film and want to believe, as he wants to, that she's continuing to play with him - even as when she's clearly no longer capable of it.
Christie's been getting all the rave reviews, it seems, but I also want to call attention to the much more subdued performance that Pinsent gives. He has much less to work with, given that his character seems to be stoic and repressed, a proud man who carries a lot of guilt and wants only to do right by his wife this last time, at least. And the lengths he'll go to in order to do so are both surprising and wholly, if not problematically, logical. Polley invests a lot of long shots on his face, and in capturing the distant but pained looks that fill his eyes - something about it recalls Richard Farnsworth in 'The Straight Story' for me. And the ending of the film? I'll simply say that it's inevitable but catches you off-guard nonetheless. It's a heart-wrenchingly ambivalent moment, somehow provoking a powerful response that isn't wholly sad or happy or identifiably anything at all, for that matter. It's so overwhelming that the particular emotional chord(s) it pulls at don't much matter.