[Review] Life During Wartime (2009)
A film by Todd Solondz
Appearing on the independent US scene a little over twenty years ago, Todd Solondz enjoys a reputation about as high as its rarity on screens. An inimitable style, funny and disturbing at the same time, a true artist who really cares about morals and able to laugh at everything. Surprise for lovers of the snowman when he launches into a sequel to what remains his best film for many, Happiness .
But Solondz is not a director like the others, Life During Wartimeis therefore not a continuation like the others. The director seems to have built a fairly marked work, and his latest film fits in, but if some references will remain obscure for those who discover his universe, the film remains highly accessible to all, subject of course to join with a style not at all common and immediately destabilizing.
So, from the opening scene, the mass is said. The spectators having seen Happiness will see there a scene of déjà-vu (confirmed by Joy’s reply), the others will hallucinate in front of this great moment of humor politically incorrect, hilarious and making us almost uncomfortable, as the dialogue is surrealist.
Concretely, Life During Wartime looks back on the three sisters of Happiness, ten years later, and around which other characters will gravitate, most coming from other films by Todd Solondz . But what could seem like an insider movie turns out to be a succulent dramatic comedy, completely crazy and offbeat.
Where the idea of giving a follow-up to an important and autonomous film becomes original, it is when the director decides to play roles already seen by new actors. It thus takes up the principle used on Palindromes, namely that the same character can very well be obese or have the physique of Jennifer Jason Leigh depending on the time.
For the rest, he seems to be pursuing the same behavioral study, this time focusing on post-Bush traumatized America. As such, he signs an absolutely virtuoso script, justly rewarded in Venice. We are stunned at a portrait of an America in full depression/reconstruction through portraits of women essentially, but that goes even further with a story that has everything universal in the end.
From the themes, he first addresses, almost innumerable: family, sex, happiness, depression, love, success, religion, war, pedophilia, perversion, childhood, trauma… and above all notions of forgetting and / or forgiveness.
With his scenario of unstoppable efficiency, Solondzsees very big and manipulates the spectator at leisure, playing with the most opposite emotions in order to destabilize us.
So, what seemed at first to be a pure offbeat comedy with a social subtext gradually turns into something much darker and disenchanted. And if we laughed heartily at the tears of the characters at the beginning, they scare us and upset us more and more as the film unfolds its succession of daily dramas.
It must be said that we find ourselves in front of a sacred gallery of characters all more neurotic than the others and that they are all dragging a past of the heaviest to manage. So the rather mysterious title finds this meaning, all these characters live as the war it is obvious, a war against themselves and their memory.
Life During Wartime is deeply disturbing and on many levels. First of all, because it dismantles the American way of life and the untouchable image of the American model family with disconcerting ease.
Then because it depicts with a naturalness that makes your back cold what are called ordinary monsters confronted with their inner demons and the ghosts of the past.
For that Solondz makes perfect use of ellipses and silences that speak volumes, and even allows scenes that embrace the dreamlike without falling into ridicule. But what bothers most is the tone he adopts to address extremely serious matters.
Because even when the film becomes much more serious, it is still treated with a certain form of genuinely destabilizing lightness, a retreat that comes to create empathy towards these characters dead inside and who build illusory happiness.
To reach such a level, it was necessary that the actors be exemplary. The whole distribution is simply perfect. As a great actor-director, Solondz gets the best of a four-star cast, regulars of independent cinema, to which is added a wonderful Charlotte Rampling, impressive in her confrontation with Ciarán Hinds.
But it is Shirley Henderson, interpreter of Joy, who will make the link between all the characters. The actress is quite simply overwhelming as she spreads an immense palette of emotions, it’s amazing. Guided by the sumptuous music of Handel, the staging of Todd Solondz is precise in its frames and prints a melancholic rhythm which contrasts with the ambient cynicism, far from the usual tics of indie cinema.
With cruelty mixed with a certain sympathy for these vivid skinned, the director signs there a surprising film. Seeking the men behind the monsters, showing the difficulty of granting or receiving forgiveness, Life During Wartime is a disillusioning experience that crushes us right down to its downright desperate end. We laugh a lot it’s true, but we laugh especially very yellow…