September 28, 2010
As per Kendra's recommendations in the comments on my "Wait, you like that movie? But it was made after 1970!" post, I watched A Single Man last night. The film is about a man (Colin Firth) who has been emotionally crippled by the loss of his partner (Matthew Goode) of 16 years, until one day he decides to kill himself to end his grief. All of the events in the movie take place on this one day, with flashbacks showing his life with his partner and the day that he died. It's an incredibly beautiful movie, (it was directed by fashion designer Tom Ford) but it's also incredibly painful.
It's perhaps the most accurate portrayal of deep grief that I've ever seen in a movie. No matter what you do, no matter how you try to go about your daily life and perform regular tasks, that grief is still eating at your heart. Even during sleep, the sole break from the agonizing pain during the day, the grief creeps into your dreams and turns them to nightmares.
A Single Man has another element of sadness that absolutely crushed my heart. Since the film takes place in the 1960's, the fact that Firth and Goode were gay partners, not a conventional husband-and-wife couple, means that Firth isn't even allowed to attend the memorial service. He isn't able to speak about his grief in public. He isn't able to address his emotions outside of his home and in the company of his best friend. His hurt wells up inside of him for months until he's just had enough.
Two other films that, I think, handle the topic of grief very well are My Reputation and Don't Look Now. My Reputation stars Barbara Stanwyck as a young widowed mother, trying to resume life after the death of her husband. The film handles public preconceptions about grieving -- when is a good time to date after your spouse has passed; should one wear black for eternity after becoming a window; should life go on as usual or come to a screeching halt. Stanwyck's is a very complex character-- she encourages her sons to go about life as if nothing happened, she refuses to wear black and fall into the mold of being a widow for life. Yet, despite her exterior resilience and perseverance, she's really fragile and enfeebled by his death. That is, until she meets a new man (George Brent). Her internal despair is softened by a new love; she is pulled from the pit of grief and able to live a relatively normal life again. And yet, her mother and her friends would prefer that she still be sad, alone and mourning because of society's taboos.
Don't Look Now is a horrific tale about a couple (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) who try to come to grips with the death of their little girl, who died in a drowning accident at their home. They go to Venice to escape the memories, and yet they find nothing else but. An old blind woman tells Christie that she can see the spirit of their daughter. Sutherland sees a vision of his daughter running around the canals of Venice wearing the red raincoat she had on when she drowned. They are haunted by their grief, and eventually destroyed by it.
People mourn in different ways. In my own family I've seen opposite sides of the spectrum. My paternal grandmother grieved for my grandfather for six years, from when he passed away until she did. My parents couldn't even get her to leave the house for months after he died, she was so inconsolable. My maternal grandmother handles grief much differently; no matter if the deceased is a best friend or distant relative, she talks about the food at the funeral and then moves onto discussing her favorite tv shows within minutes. She doesn't dwell on death, and just accepts it as a part of life.
As an emotional basket case and someone who is terrified of death and saying goodbye to loved ones, I empathize more with the characters in films who feel the weight of grief so heavily on their shoulders that it practically crushes them. I can completely understand Colin Firth's character, and how he's driven to giving up when every minute of his life is consumed by thoughts of his partner's absence. And while I'm definitely not a suicidal person, I do know that the loss of certain people in my life will certainly result in life-long therapy.