Spoiler Alert: This piece could be said to contain spoilers, but it would be difficult to discuss the film without spoilers.
Grief is a vast, ugly emotion. No one cries beautifully. No
one copes with death gracefully. Of the emotions one might depict on the big
screen, it would seem to be the most difficult. And yet, in the movies, we have
grown to accept a comfortable set of images, moods, even whole scenes that
communicate it: the hug, in which we usually see a comforting look on one
character’s face as he or she comforts someone else; the collapse in a hospital
hallway, seen from a distance, on the receipt of bad news; the lone tear,
rolling down a cheek, of a person on a telephone, when we can’t hear what’s
being said but we know what it is just the same; the downcast eyes; the slumped
shoulders. We respond to these images, generally, without realizing we’ve seen
them many times before, or perhaps because
we’ve seen them before (paging Susan Sontag, maybe). In any case, Zachary Clark’s White Reindeer is all about a woman’s grieving
process—is steeped in it, in fact—and its great strength lies in its
determination to work against filmic clichés of that process. Its outstanding
set of actors, fantastically chosen soundtrack, and moving, sensitive
cinematography make this film so genuine you can almost taste it.
We’ve all known someone like Suzanne, played beautifully
by Anna Margaret Hollyman. As if she were switching masks, she wears a perky
face at times, and a near-slack face at others, deploying them expertly. She
has a blond, pretty, all-American look, and she knows it—and yet… When we first
see her, she is watching her husband deliver the weather on a local news
station as she waits to show a house to two clients (she’s in real estate),
eyebrows raised, half-smiling, a devoted spouse; after the showing, which goes
very well, her seemingly wholesome clients overjoyed, we get a side view of her,
bent over for some energetic and talkative standing-up sex, in work clothes.
When tragedy hits, only a few scenes later, after she has arrived home from
Christmas shopping (the film is set in that cliché-laden time of the year), the
first thing she does is drop her vacuum cleaner, in near-comic fashion: her
husband is lying dead on the floor, shot in the head. The next thing she does
is file a police report and eat a candy cane the detective offers her (a candy
cane?); later she goes to a Marriott, where her parents arrive to stay with her,
and her mother, in fact, sleeps in her bed. The director presents these scenes
to us without preparation or fanfare—in fact, the lack of either is dramatic in
and of itself. When we do see Suzanne break down, she’s on the toilet, dress
around her knees, sobbing loudly and without inhibition. This would
seem, in hindsight, near-sentimental if it weren’t for the fact that the
director gives us another bathroom scene later, after her husband’s funeral; as he cries loudly—blubbers, in fact—he tells Suzanne her husband cheated on her with a stripper.
It doesn’t help Suzanne that the film is set in the
Christmas season, when happiness is obligatory for all and attainable by fewer
than we’d think—but it does help the film, by casting her approach to grief
into relief. (And it also gives Clark the chance to fill the soundtrack with ghoulishly
cheery Christmas music, some in English, some not, which gives the whole film a
strangely taut, wired feeling.) After finding out where her husband’s mistress
worked, she does what any responsible widow would do: she tracks the stripper
down, gets acquainted, and then goes out clubbing with her. This isn’t before,
of course, she buys over five thousand dollars’ worth of holiday oriented
clothing and Christmas decorations. She does cry again, but she shares this moment
of sadness with a stack of empty egg nog cartons. There are moments in the film
where some viewers’ sense of decency might make them think Clark has gone too
far—but the feeling shouldn’t last, because what he actually doing is trying to
convey the ersatz reality of human reactions, and human behavior. Not pretty. Not
graceful. Not believable, ironically enough. Indeed, Suzanne parties plenty,
for someone who’s just lost her husband. She attends a holiday party, thrown by
her earlier clients, which turns out to be an orgy—yes, an orgy, complete
with swinging breasts, hand jobs, masks, oral and anal sex, everything. And Suzanne
participates, if sadly.
Clark’s very smart move in this film is to temper the satire
(in its truest sense, given that Clark is asking us to acknowledge the reality
of the way we humans act when faced with unmanageable sadness, and to distrust
the way grief happens in the movies) with poignance and attentiveness.
Fantasia, the stripper, is played with unsettling poise by Laura
Lemar-Goldsborough; as the movie winds along, we find out about her home life
with her mother and her child, revealed in soft, funny touches (the child wakes
Suzanne up from her sleep on Fantasia’s sofa after a long night out by banging
a gift near her head and screaming “Wake up, Wake up, Wake up!”). The two women have
an immediate bond, as people, and not just as a cheating husband’s wife and her
husband’s lover—this friendship steels the movie, giving it a sense of uplift.
But that uplift comes from elsewhere, as well.
What Clark is actually suggesting is something larger—that the answer to the
problem of handling loss comes from letting the world in, in whatever form.
This is very much a movie about survival—and another one of its strengths is
that, even as it makes a myriad of dark jokes, it doesn’t make either grieving or subsequent survival seem
easy or simple. Suzanne’s pain in the film is mixed, in even portions, with
excitement, with love, and with intoxication of all kinds. Much like, it turns
out, life itself.
Max Winter is the Editor-in-Chief of Press Play.