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Loner's gifts to the lonely dead


Still Life (M). Director: Uberto Pasolini. Starring: Eddie Marsan, Joanne Froggatt. 92 minutes

Some years ago my then next-door neighbour attempted suicide. He'd recently separated from his partner, who had moved out with their three children. His teenage son showed up unexpectedly one day to find his father hanging in the garage. To my shame I dismissed the boy's shouts for the sounds of adolescent roughhousing — they'd always been noisy kids. Luckily, another neighbour was more alert. Had he not come to the rescue — and if not for the fortuity of the son's arrival in the first place — the incident would have had a tragic outcome.

For an individual to die alone at home amid the crowd of suburbia is one of the sadder, and sadly common, scenarios of modern Western existence. Italian-born British filmmaker Pasolini explores this phenomenon in Still Life — a sweet and thoughtful examination of alienation and loneliness. Its hero John (Marsan), a council worker who looks for the relatives of those found dead and alone. Frequently his investigations are fruitless. Next-of-kin, if they can be located, prove to be relieved or indifferent to hear of the death of an estranged parent.

This is not merely work for John. He approaches the task with a strong sense of personal responsibility to the deceased. He writes elegant eulogies based on whatever biographical scraps he can piece together, attends their funerals as the sole witness, and reverently scatters their ashes in a park. He has a deep affection for these posthumous rituals; has in fact already purchased his own cemetery 'plot-with-a-view', and is in the habit of lying on that patch of grass, smiling at the sky from the very place where his remains will rest for eternity.

Pointedly, John, too, is one of 'the lonely'. He lives a simple, friendless existence in a sparse apartment. We see him prepare a meal, consisting of a single piece of toast and a tin of tuna scrupulously turned-out onto a plate, and arranged methodically on a table built for one. Marsan is a wonderful character actor appearing here in a rare leading role; in stillness and silence he imbues John with a palpable sense of loneliness. This is the root of John's empathy towards, for example, a dead woman so lonely that she wrote letters to herself from her cat.

But his methods breed conflict with a new manager, who demands a ruthless efficiency that allows no space for John's careful attendance to his charges' posthumous needs. He is told that his current case will be his last. John throws himself into the case with more determination even than usual, even though the man turns out to have been an unpleasant character. It brings him into contact with the man's adult daughter, Kelly (Froggatt), who is moved by John's empathy, and presents the possibility that his loneliness might be dissolved.

It is a shame to write off a fine film based on its final few minutes. Nonetheless Still Life's finale hammers its point home in a way that needlessly disrupts the film's endearing gentleness. There is little doubt that selfless John would be content with the final turn of events. But as a gift to his audience Pasolini might have done well to avoid this ultimate, heavy-handed manipulation. Sometimes sad stories have happy or hopeful endings — as was the case with my neighbour, who recovered, remarried, and now lives happily. And still, life goes on.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Eddie Marsan, Joanne Froggatt, Uberto Pasolini, Still Life



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Existing comments

This film does seem to have an endearing gentleness so I'll wait patiently for it to arrive at our local cinema (still waiting for 'Calvary' which is due soon). I think the true loner is a creature of solitude, not loneliness. A big difference. And perhaps a farewell to this life from just one deeply loving person is enough.

Pam | 23 July 2014  

This is a truly beautiful film. I saw it last Friday and Calvary on Saturday. Then MH17 was shot down. Both films can be seen as comments on the Bill Morris affair, and on MH17. Still Life is about someone who truly cares about every individual. Calvary has one of these, the priest, and a whole lot of cynics who couldn't care less about anyone but themselves. Both Eddie Marsan and Brendan Gleeson are wonderful.

Graham English | 24 July 2014  

Look forward to seeing this film. A fine review Tim. Wonder now about the ending.

Lyn Bender | 18 August 2014  

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