Life During Wartime
Life During Wartime (2009)
Dir. Todd Solondz
Correct me if I’m wrong, but it feels to me that in the span of three films, critics and the film community at large have quietly forgotten Todd Solondz. What a shame, especially considering he may have just made his finest film to date. Solondz has always existed to ruffle feathers, and I’m not here to argue with his detractors, most of which likely feel his shock-tactics brand of satire has grown tired and familiar over the years. What a shame it still remains that his film Palindromes remains so consistently slept upon to this day, because it marked a breakthrough in maturity and showed, god-forbid, a genuine heart beating beneath the frigidly astute social commentary. And further more, what a shame it is that Life During Wartime has the tag of being a sequel to Happiness, a premise more likely to scare-off audiences in this independent film climate than allure them. If anyone is genuinely still interested in Solondz as unmistakable author, I assure you, Life During Wartime is Bunuel-ian in its best moments, overstated and stale in its worst, but brimming with a tireless exploration of ideas and experimentation that have been woefully absent in American indie films for some time.
The gimmick, if you will, of Life During Wartime is indeed that it posits itself as a sequel to Happiness, but completely re-casts the original actors and seeks to catch up with many of the characters a decade later. Here we find Solondz in That Obscure Object of Desire mode once again, but somehow this time around the casting does not as immediately call attention to itself, as it certainly did in Palindromes. In accordance to revisiting these characters, which it must be said that it focuses entirely on the family of Happiness (no Philip Seymour Hoffman masturbating onto walls this go round), time has indeed shaped them in vital ways, in some instances rendering them unrecognizable to anyone who hasn’t been with them all this time. For instance, Cierián Hinds brings an unrepentant intensity to the role of the pedophile father, iconically and tenderly played by Dylan Baker in the first film, but it comes this time around with a straight face, not a shred of tongue-in-cheek in sight. This is a man that has gone through much, and done some unforgivable things in the eyes of society and his own family, but asks for no forgiveness, nor an understanding, given that he admittedly still maintains the same desires.
Forgiveness is the thread that binds Life During Wartime together, and approaching this subject is practically a thesis onto itself, as every member of the ensemble exists on both sides of the coin; asking for forgiveness while struggling to forgive those who wronged them in the past. Like its predecessor, Life During Wartime unfolds with such density that to pick apart each characters’ motivations and plights would be unfairly exhaustive, not to mention closing a sort of door on such interpretive ideas. What this film does explore more so than any other film in his oeuvre is a sense of other-worldliness, both stylistically speaking as well as philosophically. In a peculiar way, it seems Solondz is tapping into a kind of spiritualism that I can wholeheartedly say I have yet to experience in a film of his. The film’s warm, formalist style certainly suits this territory well, and provides a nice balance when the cold, masochistic side of the filmmaker rears its head occasionally. As hinted at before, for a film with such a vast catalog of characters and inner references, there are remarkably few head-scratching moments, but there are some clunkers in the midst regardless. It just wouldn’t be a Todd Solondz film without a couple of satirical thuds and groaners thrown in.
All this being said, it has occurred to me that Solondz’s films may not be timeless. Solondz has an almost impeccable knack for capturing the now in his satire, but in watching Happiness again in anticipation for this film, I couldn’t help but feel some of its sting being dulled a bit. That’s not to say it doesn’t remain shocking, as I worry for the society that becomes so desensitized that Happiness no longer shocks, but some of its commentary seems so ingrained in the late 1990s, and the unhinged independent film climate it reflects. Perhaps it’s just hindsight, but what I feel Solondz has gained so poetically over these last two films of his in particular is an emotional undercurrent that resonates no matter what the cultural pulse. Early on in Life During Wartime, the mother describes to her youngest son what it felt like when her new love touched her arm, and in typical Solondz fashion, continues to talk about it in increasingly graphic detail. What happens next, however, is sort of a minor breakthrough in a Solondz film; the mother stops describing her sexual desires, and wonders aloud, “why am I talking about this to my 12 year-old son?” This is a wall-breaking moment for the filmmaker, a simple touch that now deepens the satirical edge to something existing in a world that now resembles our own more than ever. It’s a filmmaker learning genuine compassion amongst all the aggravating ticks of society that beg for farcical destruction. A powerful, dense, deliriously clever, brutally honest and extraordinarily touching film.