Life During Wartime - TIFF 2009 Day 5

dir. Todd Solondz

Life During Wartime is a crystalline culmination of Solondz's work - from Welcome to the Dollhouse to Palindromes. Still focused on outcasts and their fears, anxieties and depression, it's a beautiful film that reintroduces us to most of the main characters from Happiness as they've migrated down to Florida in the aftermath of Bill's arrest for child molestation. Wartime carries over the technique used in Palindromes of using different actors for the same character and it continues to work wonders. Bill was played by Dylan Baker in Happiness as being a timid sort of guy and as he's released from prison in Life During Wartime he's of course going to be a different person; and that's the idea that Solondz runs with by casting new actors in these roles. When we realize Bill is now being portrayed by Ciaran Hinds, we can immediately tell prison has transformed him and Hinds plays him as a hardened, cold soul. Its a wonderful tactic that you'd think might disappoint, but really does add dimension to these character's stories. 

It would be nice to see Jon Lovitz back as Andy, the dumpee that turns on Joy in Happiness' devastating opening scene, but watching Paul Reubens go from nasty to nice as Andy's ghost, haunting Joy as she mistakenly turns to family for solace, has its own distinct pleasures. Seeing Solondz go so far as to deliver an echo of that Andy/Joy scene at the very beginning of Wartime. And if you though Solondz could never match that film (or scene's) impact, he sets you straight within the first few minutes and doesn't let up. I think he's surpassed Happiness here, and though it has been a while since I've watched that film, it's easy to realize that Wartime is a more focused, more mature film.

While Solondz's ability to balance humor and pain, that skill has never been on better display here. I was searching my mind after this screening for another director that is able to shine a light on the inherent pains that come with being a human being and couldn't think of another one that goes as dark as Solondz does while making it so palatable and yet so resonant and true. Lars von Trier, for example, loves to linger on humans in pain -- never so literally than with Antichrist, but it can become indulgent and off-putting -- as if the audience is the wimp if they can't accept his challenge to endure his vision. Solondz is more effective by giving you the humor and absurdity which not only makes it more attractive to watch but actually makes it more truthful. 

The photography is also quite attractive. Shooting in Puerto Rico in place of Florida gives the film some beautiful visual tones but the indoor work is just as remarkable. A few films this past week were shown through digital projection and I must say that those films have been strikingly more vibrant and alive than the others. Gaspar Noe had mentioned after Enter the Void played at the AMC theater that he'd never seen his film shown so dimly before (but that it perhaps wasn't so bad a thing for his film) and while the Ryerson and Elgin have been better than the chains, it's still a big problem when even at a film festival of TIFFs repute projectors can't be properly functioning (the disastrously mangled The Informant! print is a whole other reason). For shame.