Not wishing to start off on a total downer, let us say that for much of its running time, “Still Life” is just about bearable. Now that’s partly because, catching up with the four-time Venice award-winner [drops to knees, bellows “Why?” at the heavens] at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, we had started off well-disposed toward it. Not only did the Uberto Pasolini film (not to be confused with the 2006 Jia Zhang-ke film of the same name which also won at Venice) trail those laurels, but lead Eddie Marsan had just picked up Best Actor in a British Film in Edinburgh, and anyway, Marsan is one of our very favorite character actors, so the chance to see him take on such an inarguably central role was enticing. But only too soon the film wore our goodwill down to a tiny nub, with maudlin moment piling on mawkish turn, drenched in a minor-key Rachel Portman score so twee and sentimentalized that the obvious comparison would be an insult to syrup. Still, we were hanging on in there, by a fingernail, until the manipulation and contrivance of the ending landed a one-two punch that almost left us winded at its sheer bloody gall. If you’ve ever wondered about the precise definition of the word “bathos,” the final ten minutes of “Still Life” is it, and it is not a compliment.
John May (Marsan) is a lonely, meticulous, diligent man of the type so beloved by indie filmmakers because they get to have a lot of shots of him making sad little symmetrical meals for himself and walking routinely past the same drab buildings on his way to and from work. His work, as it happens, is interesting: May is a long-standing council employee whose job it is to organize the funerals or cremations of those people who die in the locality without friends or relatives to claim them. But May’s quiet sensitivity—and, could it be, unspoken sense that perhaps he himself may die alone?—lead him to track leads and pursue clues with unusual dedication, trying with all the goodness of his heart (and there’s a preternatural amount of that) to find someone who knew the deceased to come to the funeral. Almost invariably, though, it’s just him, standing alone in a pew listening to a bored priest read the eulogy that May himself has written, parsing some heartfelt lines from the evidence he finds in the homes of the lonely dead. His respectful, patient approach, however, has no place in this brash new world and he’s summarily told to pack up and move on, leaving him with just one last case to close. That case, by a would-you-ever coincidence, happens to be of a man who lived in the flat directly across from May himself, in case anyone in the cheap seats had had a hard time picking out the parallels already, and May absorbs himself in the task of tracking down someone—anyone—to come to the man’s funeral, which will be May’s own last duty in the job that defines him.
This set up gives Pasolini (also a producer on “The Full Monty” who, trivia fans, is not related to the more famous Pasolini, but is the nephew of Luschino Visconti, and is also married to Portman) ample opportunity for a good old wallow. Lingering shots of dented pillows where the deceased’s head lay not so long ago; a brief flare of hope sent up by a loving letter that seems to be from a daughter, but was in fact written by the dead woman herself, in the persona of her cat; and most of all, endless reaction shots of Marsan being all sad and meticulous and sad. Running the tiny gamut from bittersweet to winsome to melancholic, never do we really deviate from the THIS IS ALL SO ACHINGLY SAD agenda.
This is an issue for the performance as well. As we’ve mentioned, Marsan is a great, great actor, but what we realized watching “Still Life” is that he’s often great because he’s cast in a slightly subversive way: hardly a conventionally handsome dude, Marsan has a certain downtrodden, hangdoggish air that is so surprising when twisted into something else, something dangerous or mean or pompous or kinky. But here the same problem that dogs the whole film is exemplified by his casting: everyone is what they look like; subtext is practically skywritten across the text; and there is just no room for nuance, let alone contradiction or mess or any other element of actual, real life. And he’s not helped by some terribly on-the-nose overwriting either, like when he answers the phone and basically repeats everything the person on the other end says for fear we might not get it: “What’s that you say? He’s your father? But your surname isn’t the same? Because you changed it?” sort of thing.
We can’t go into the ending too deeply without spoiling it (or rather without robbing the ending of the opportunity to spoil the film for you all by itself), but there is a hugely melodramatic moment after which the film takes its final, disgraceful turn, from a sappy but potentially tolerable small tale of a gentle soul finding a little connection in a cruel world, into a mindblowingly unearned finale that manages to be both pointlessly, contrivedly downbeat and still dripping with schmaltz. Rather like spending 90 minutes watching a cute little flopsy puppy chase its own tail adorably before it’s suddenly drop-kicked off a bridge, there is just so little that’s genuine in “Still Life,” so little honesty, and not just in how it treats it audience, but in how it treats its lead character too. We absolutely know we’ll be accused of heartlessness or “missing the point” (as though that were possible) by the film’s (presumably many) defenders, and well, have at it if you like, but we are fully aware that there is a valuable service that cinema can provide when it makes us feel for people in marginalized or isolated situations. The problem is, the inescapably precious “Still Life” doesn’t deal in anything as truthful, complex and difficult as empathy; its only currency is pity, and that is the basest coin of all. [D+/C-]