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Viewer opinions on director Todd Solondz don't run lukewarm: his films are either loved or loathed. They conjure a view of a world populated by "damaged" misfits; personal despair is spread around like a virus. Solondz's characters are typically overwhelmed by bad situations. His first theatrical effort, the pessimistic Welcome to the Dollhouse demonstrates his rebellion against the status quo of uplifting drama: a young 7th grader tormented by her schoolmates and treated poorly at home lacks the resources and support to rise above her situation, and learns to be equally cruel herself. Terrible things happen in Todd Solondz movies. Experience does not lead to insight.
Solondz's 1998 Happiness is guaranteed to repel unwary viewers. A story of internal despair, its three sisters stumble through terrible relationships and cope with sexual abuse. One sister is married to a pedophile, while the boyfriend of another commits suicide. The movie is almost traumatic to watch, as nobody seems capable of making a good decision or of protecting a loved one. Beyond its sexual frankness, what makes the film so disturbing is its tone of universal misery. It's the blackest of black comedies. There are no easy laughs, but one can't escape the awful absurdity in the sadness and malice.
The characters of Happiness return twelve years later in Life During Wartime but are played by an entirely different cast. The sisters have all left New Jersey. The passive, emotionally frail Joy (Shirley Henderson) works with prisoners but would still like to make a living as a songwriter. Her new husband Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams) hasn't kicked his habit of making obscene phone calls, so she decides to take a break from the relationship. Joy is visited by the 'ghost' of Andy (Paul Reubens), her previous boyfriend who killed himself. The phantom Andy begs her to re-start their relationship. Joy eventually travels west to visit her sister Helen (Ally Sheedy), now a wealthy Hollywood screenwriter. Helen is a control freak with anger management issues; she's effectively cut herself off from the family. Although living in luxury, Helen considers herself a victim. She treats Joy with patronizing contempt.
Sister Trish (Allison Janney) is desperate to put her own shattered family life in order. Her ex-husband Bill (Ciarán Hinds) has been in prison for years on a charge of pedophilia; her younger children have been told that he is dead. Trish may have found the "normal" life she craves in the dull but dependable Harvey Wiener (Michael Lerner), who shares her Jewish faith. She's sexually attracted to him simply because he fits her profile of normality. The problem is Trish's terrible parenting judgment. She allows her small daughter to monitor her own dosage of Klonopin, a powerful drug used to ward off panic attacks. Her young son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) learns that his father is alive. Frightened and confused, Timmy can't get a coherent answer from his mother about what a pedophile does to children. Meanwhile, Bill has been released from prison, and is determined to find out what has become of his former family. Supposedly reformed, he's still haunted by his old cravings. He pops gumdrops to distract himself from his unforgivable obsession.
Carefully written and performed, Life During Wartime presents a despairing mix of defenseless and repellent characters. Victims like Joy and Trish internalize their bad feelings and run for whatever cover they can find. Helen seethes with inner anger and insists that she is the unrecognized victim; she doesn't care what psychic damage she inflicts on Joy. Writer Solondz expresses his personal contempt for Hollywood by having Helen engage in furious sex with (an unseen) Keanu Reeves. It's as if the woman is trying to stave off the falseness of her life with nightly inoculations of Movie Star. The masochistic Joy practically sleepwalks through her relationships with men. Andy is a manipulative abuser even as a ghost, and the pathetic Allen seeks absolution for his serious sexual maladjustment issues.
The outwardly composed Trish is no less damaged than her sisters. She keeps up her appearance but has clearly not recovered from her experience with Bill. Grasping for a meaningful identity, Trish has decorated her house with tasteful religious items yet is oblivious to the needs of her children. Her tiny daughter is clearly tripping on her medications. At the dinner table, she asks if "baby carrots feel pain". Timmy is at an age where he's curious about sex, and Trish confuses him by sharing her physical feelings toward Harvey. When Timmy becomes frightened about his father, she evades the boy's frantic questions about pedophiles, and simply tells him to scream and run if any adult man touches him. Trish is unaware that she is passing her fears and anxieties to her children.
Director Solondz presents weak people in appalling circumstances, yet Life During Wartime remains compassionate and committed to its characters. The film is a series of intensely uncomfortable encounters that focus on the hurtful traumas that his characters inflict on each other. He also stylizes many scenes, isolating the characters in their psychological prisons and expressing their inner fantasies in dream sequences. Joy strolls through the town in the middle of the night, in her nightgown. In Bill's sinister mental visions, a phantom child glows white in an Eden-like garden. Bill has only a couple of dialogue scenes, but both are quite striking. In the first he visits his older son Billy (Chris Marquette) in his college dorm. Bill can barely stand to be with him for more than a minute or two -- he seems afraid that something terrible will happen. Bill is picked up in a hotel bar by Jacqueline (Charlotte Rampling), another malcontent consumed by inner rage. The bitter Jacqueline considers herself a monster, something Bill certainly understands. And monsters should never hope for forgiveness.
Life During Wartime's working title was "Forgiveness", a word that sets it apart from the overpoweringly negative Happiness. Some of the characters, Timmy especially, ponder the meaning of "forgive and forget" and debate whether the two really should go together. The interpersonal disasters continue, but Life During Wartime offers at least the possibility of forgiveness and hope, a represented by an image of Timmy carrying a single flower. The film's final title comes from a Talking Heads song, and critics have pointed out several references in the film to life post- 9/11, where America itself seems to be hiding from unpleasant realities. Helen, a Jew, has become a pro-Palestinian zealot. Poor Timmy wants to know if a pedophile is a terrorist.
The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray of Life During Wartime is a beautiful, colorful HD encoding of this strange film. The Florida exteriors (filmed in Puerto Rico) are designed to be deceptively placid. Cameraman Edward Lachman appears in an interview to explain the contrast between the sunny pastel exteriors and the weird, unpleasant hues seen in the darker dramatic scenes. In a selected scene commentary Lachman also discusses the RED camera system and the difference between film and video images. Writer-director Solondz participates in an audio Q&A session. The new making-of docu Actor's Reflections gathers most of the main actors to share the challenges of working on Life During Wartime and contains footage from the film's set. A trailer is included, and Criterion's insert booklet contains an essay by David Sterritt, who pegs Solondz as the "lyric poet of the rejected, the dejected and the clueless".
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Life During Wartime Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.