The New York Times issues "Critics' Picks" recommendations for movies that its reviewers find superior. Two such movies — one Belgian, the other Japanese — describe family relationships that are less than ideal. Yet each comes to a life-affirming conclusion. That's quite a difficult balancing act to pull off. But, then, that's why there is art.
The Japanese movie, After the Storm (directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda), details the life of a failed, disillusioned writer who now works as a cut-rate detective who follows and photographs cheating spouses. He pursues this work in a dubious way, taking bribes and selling out clients — even stealing. (Money is a preoccupation throughout the film.) On the other hand, he has a personal appeal that seems to make people want to help him, including fellow detective agency employees.
In other words, the script and the actor (Hiroshi Abe) indicate that the character (named Ryota Shinoda) is a good person who has lost his way.
He has lost his way with his former wife, who is now dating a man with a glitzier, if sleazier, demeanor. Worst of all, Shinoda has disappointed — and continues to disappoint — his son. The title refers both to the storm of Shinoda's life, his failures and divorce and inability to pay the child support he owes, but also the typhoon he, his wife, his son, and his widowed mother weather one night sleeping over at the mother's apartment.
During the course of the evening Shinoda's wife Kyoko (Yoko Maki) rejects his advances, and makes finally clear that they are over (which Shinoda already knew). Worse, she suggests that Shinoda won't be allowed to see his son again, a failure that duplicates his father's own failures with Shinoda. Yet Kyoko, fueled by Shinoda's mother's obvious, but not blind, love for her son, as well as Shinoda's own efforts to break through to his son, is moved to reconsider this ultimate rejection after their night together.
And all that occurred to bring about this miraculous resolution was that four people — a child, two adults, and one senior citizen (whose own life and marriage have been disappointing, and whom we see in various aspects of her life in a seniors' condo development) — interact in every combination with one another. Shinoda's sister, who is understandably sharp with him, her simple but sweet husband, and two joyous daughters are also present, but leave before the storm. Think of the movie as counterprogramming to all of those films that jump from one explosion or horror scene to another!
François Ozon's French-Belgian film, Frantz, describes the efforts of a French soldier, Adrien (Pierre Niney) to make amends to the family and the betrothed of a German soldier, Frantz, he has killed in trench warfare during World War I. Adrien succeeds in winning over both the parents and Anna, Frantz's bereaved fiancée (played by Paula Beer). But he is, understandably, less than honest in his disclosures to the family.
These interactions take place in a war-forlorn Europe, first in Germany, then France. But the ravages of war are evoked by the main characters' individual suffering, including the dead soldier's parents' despair, and not by battle scenes or even scenes of post-war devastation. As the Times reviewer, Stephen Holden, describes this cinematic "trick"*:
For an antiwar film, “Frantz” is low-key. It doesn’t rub your face in gore or stir your adrenaline; there are no battle scenes, and only fleeting images of ruined cities and wounded soldiers; and a mood of bitterness, despair and exhaustion prevails. The movie even goes out of its way to evoke the cultural similarity of two warring nations, geographical neighbors, who appreciated the same music and art. Parallel scenes show Germans and Frenchmen bellowing patriotic anthems even after the Armistice.
Adrien does finally reveal all to Anna, and then retreats to Paris, feeling her scorn as he returns home. But Anna is not done with him, in part because she wants to continue the deception for Frantz's parents' sake, and she goes to France to find Adrien. We see that Anna has been deeply affected by Adrien's sincerity and humanity, as were Frantz's mother and father. Adrien has already had a life-affirming impact although he has lied about the horrible way he knew Frantz.
Searching for Adrien in Paris, Anna discovers that he is himself engaged to be married. In a beautifully choreographed emotional ballet, Adrien's fiancée allows Anna and Adrien to work their relationship through, even as she cares deeply for Adrien and senses the deeper currents between the couple. But their (Anna's and Adrien's) relationship is unconsummated, like the reconciliation of Shinoda and Kyoko. Neither film is remotely like a standard rom-com.
And, yet, Adrien and Anna save one another's lives. Adrien is free to marry, while Anna decides to stay in Paris, rather than return to the scene of mourning that awaits her in Germany. Anna has decided that she wants to live, as has Adrien. They accomplish this for one another by displaying and perceiving their love for each other. In a similar way, Shinoda realizes his own father's love for him though his father is dead. But if that were the Japanese film's only accomplishment it would fall far short of the life affirmation represented by Shinoda and his son's rapprochement that it actually achieves.
None of these characters — Shinoda, Kyoko, Shinoda's mother, Adrien, Anna — are cheerful. Indeed, the two films are marked by depression, both that of the characters and of the mise en scènes, punctuated by outbursts of nature in both films and of art and music in Frantz (albeit the music is interrupted by emotional breakdowns+). But, in both, human beings are trying to reach out to others in order to affirm that their own lives are worthwhile — that life is worth living. The two films are stories of natural recovery from depression through human interaction.
Neither film has a sex scene. But each has love. Neither depicts a finally realized life solution. But each film holds out hope. Neither describes idealized, or even successful, characters. But each reveals caring, humane people — neither film has a villain, although the men ardently pursuing Anna and Kyoko are both made to seem foolish and, worse, insincere, cruel, superficial.
What do we learn from these movies (aside from their recognition that quiet, genuine human dramas are worth viewing)? We learn that striving for love and life are, in and of themselves, ennobling and justify our time on earth.
* Holden points out that Frantz is an homage to Ernst Lubitsch's anti-war film, Broken Lullaby. But it is equally a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock's first American film, Rebecca, which is likewise named for a prior lover whose death precedes the filmed story. Meanwhile, just as Holden calls Frantz low-key, Times reviewer Glenn Kenny says After the Storm "works in a quiet cinematic register."
Suggested listening for reading this blogpost: Peggy Lee singing "Is That All There Is?" by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller.
See Stanton's new way of thinking about addiction in his book, Recover!: An Empowering Program to Help You Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life, with Ilse Thompson, or practice it through his on-line Life Process Program.