Cinema plus Psychoanalysis equals the Science of Ghosts – Jacques Derrida
Cinema has always seemed the ideal bedfellow for explorations of grief and loss. It’s ingrained in the very origins of the medium which began as an exercise in attempting to capture reality, before its early practitioners quickly realised that the cinematic art only succeeded in documenting the elusiveness of that attempt. As Tom Gunning famously opined, “far from fulfilling a dream of total replication of reality – the apophantis of the myth of total cinema – the experience of the first projections exposes the hollow centre of the cinematic illusion.” Even the act of consuming cinema – invariably alone, in silence, in darkness – institutes a memorial, almost mournful act. With cinema now primarily conceived of as a medium for filming stories, what themes have storytellers and artists returned to down the years more than any other? Mortality and loss.
It goes without saying that the simple fact of mortality is integral to the human condition. It transcends that which commonly divides: age, race, gender, religion, nationality. It also transcends genre. It can be weaved in to moods of sentimentality, anger, humour, or remembrance. In cinematic terms, it’s just as likely to preoccupy a Steven Spielberg or M. Night Shyamalan as it is a Michael Haneke or Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Thus the medium is perpetually rife with tales relating to mortality, and, more specifically, the concept of grief. Reflect, for a moment, on the last 10 films you’ve seen, and it’s more than likely that many of them will have the idea of grief embedded somewhere in their narratives. It could be characters existing in the aftermath of some form of loss, or an actual death driving the story itself, to grief or a sense of mourning offering a more universal subtext.
To list all the ways in which tales of grief have been depicted by cinema would be a near infinite task. And that’s before even expanding the concept of grief to focus on areas other than a specific bereavement. What about the trauma and pain caused by the end of a relationship? The final act of Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’Or winning Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013), as lovers Adèle and Emma go their separate ways, is one of the rawest depictions of grief imaginable. And what if that sense of grief wasn’t over the loss of a person but a calling or vocation? Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951) is a crushingly sad depiction of a young priest whose grief over the seeming irrelevance of his faith amid a flock of cruel, heartless parishioners inflicts on him a literal death by the story’s close. What about grieving a location or simply a former status? Terrence Malick’s hugely underrated To the Wonder (2012), which charts a transcontinental relationship and another conflicted priest, is a masterly evocation of emotional and geographical dislocation as a form of grief, while Andrei Tarkovsky’s self-evidently titled Nostalgia (1983) was a thinly veiled discourse on his own profound sense of loss having uprooted himself from the Soviet Union to Italy in the early ‘80s.
Fundamentally though, the most gripping cinematic depictions of grief have been to do with the immediate aftermath of a major bereavement. Four of the finest films to have centred their narratives around a character’s grief-stricken, psychological state are Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours: Blue (1993), Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), and François Ozon’s Time to Leave (2005).
Don’t Look Now and Three Colours: Blue make for especially relevant companion pieces because they are essentially treatises on the nature of bereavement; only their protagonists go on almost polar journeys of inward discovery (or, lack thereof where Don’t Look Now is concerned) toward their moment of destiny. Both films begin violently by literalising the physical trauma of bereavement, and allowing the quietude of their narratives to be ruptured by the suddenness and brutality of an untimely and accidental death. The crucial difference being that whereas in Don’t Look Now, Donald Sutherland’s grieving father seeks to repress his colossal grief, to the point where it bastardises into the film’s shockingly surreal denouement, so Juliette Binoche’s bereaved wife and widow in Three Colours: Blue submits herself to the crystal-clear sorrow of her bereaved state, and goes on a deeply moving process of rebirth and renewal as a result – symbolising the tricolore theme of liberté so crucial to Kieślowski’s end-design with his trilogy.
Amid the myriad of divisive opinions on Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life – often relating to the evolution sequence – many commentators overlook that the film’s real driving force is actually a specific (as well as an existential) sense of grief and loss fuelled by a key bereavement which is presented in non-chronological order at the beginning of the film. Hidden within protagonist Jack’s present-day state of disaffection amid the alienating landscape of Manhattan skyscrapers, alongside his rapturous reminiscences over his formative childhood, is the idea that by Jack reacquainting himself with the sensations of his ‘Paradise Lost’, he may – just may – be able to assuage his crippling malaise.
François Ozon’s Time to Leave is a novel depiction of bereavement in that it features a protagonist who is actually able to grieve his own demise (thanks to Ozon’s plot hook of a young photographer, Romain, being struck down by a terminal illness that only affords him a few short months left in this world). Romain – previously a high-octane, feckless hedonist – proceeds to ghost his way towards the end of his life, elegiacally encountering all those nearest and dearest to him without actually informing any of them (bar his grandmother) of his condition. Romain’s decision to end his days in a location of his favourite boyhood reminiscences makes Time to Leave a very distant cousin to The Tree of Life in that with grief comes an overbearing sense of nostalgia and a desire to memorialise the past.
Of course, a bereavement rarely affects only one person, and some of cinema’s finest films have charted how a death can impact upon a family unit. Pablo Larraín’s underrated Jackie (2016) was a superb attempt to probe beneath its seemingly formulaic biographical recreation exercise, a really quite nuanced portrait of how the death of JFK foisted upon Jackie Kennedy a set of unimaginable burdens: the need to tenderly manage the news to her own children, to offer a front of stoicism and dignity to the nation, while managing her own, deeply traumatised state as well. Ordinary People (1980), Robert Redford’s directorial debut and a film he never came close to bettering, was a pitch-perfect dissection of how the cruelly premature passing of a loved child can insidiously destroy a family over time (although it did, ironically, offer Donald Sutherland the opportunity to portray a much more admirable and dignified father-in-grief than he had in Don’t Look Now).
Lastly, one of the finest contemporary filmmakers on the planet, Hirokazu Koreeda, is fast making a signature out of how bereavement – usually occurring at a point in the story world before the film’s narrative begins – reconfigures family dynamics. The “elephant in the room” of his recent release, After the Storm (2016), as the metaphorical title implies, is how all the associated members of a Japanese family have begun to reflect upon their own status and mortality in the wake of the aged father’s death. And his previous work, Our Little Sister (2015), looked at the effects of grief on a younger generation, and how the event of another deceased father brings about a poignant coming together of previously estranged sisters.
As mentioned earlier, it isn’t just arthouse cinema that has exclusivity on the theme of grief. It has been a staple element of genre cinema down the years: horror (The Sixth Sense, The Babadook); animation (Up, Bambi, The Lion King); romantic dramas (Ghost, Sleepless in Seattle); thrillers (21 Grams, Mystic River) – and these examples really only scratch the surface. Indeed, the latest direct treatment of grief hits our cinemas this weekend: David Lowery’s A Ghost Story. Whether it enters the canon of great filmic depictions of grief or not, one thing’s for sure, history has proved Lowery won’t be the last filmmaker to turn his thoughts to this endlessly compelling theme.