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At the cinematheque: "The Life of the Dead" (Desplechin, 1991)

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky

Above: An image from the beginning of The Life of the Dead.

It's a good day. Cool Chicago summer — a few days before the 4th of July, but it feels like September. I'm sitting in the living room, going through old notebooks, putting together a list of movies I wanted to write about when I first saw them but never got around to. The sort of things you're always thinking about, but never quite make their way into conversation. You'd feel too pushy bringing them up in a movie theater lobby — that's what the Internet's for, anyway. I'm thinking: "I want to write about La Vie Des Morts. I've managed to tiptoe around Desplechin so far." It's a good movie, a lot of interesting stuff going on. And I log on to The Auteurs and there it is. Opportunity, luck, arbitrariness — regardless, I'm happy to have a reason to bring it up.

Of course here we're calling it The Life of the Dead, an English title that gives it a sort of literacy, very different from the musicality you get when you call a film by its original-language name, like we do with operas.  It's the kind of name you'd give a first novel. But I think it's better to think of Desplechin's films as musical works than literary ones. Desplechin is a screenwriter and a director, but not at the same time. The problem with so-called "writer/directors" is that they tend to write instead of directing. They're afraid of ruining their own work in favor of something better. This doesn't come so much from a belief in the script's strength as fear of its possible weakness. Desplechin's got enough faith in his scripts to treat them as texts, not instructions. The script is something separate from the film. The script isn't a movie — a movie is what happens when a script is directed, and Desplechin the director is instantly recognizable because he isn't rigid, just as Desplechin the screenwriter is identified by his attention to detail. He has no problem working around his own composition if it'll get at something truer. He writes scripts like Brian Ferneyhough writes for the flute, and directs the way Ferneyhough expects his flautists to perform. The composer and the performer in one body, indivisable but separate.

Above: 11 faces in three images from The Life of the Dead.

The Life of the Dead is a humble sort of film. It's less than an hour long, shot on 16mm in only 5 days. A humble production of an ambitious script: in those 54 or so minutes, there are 25 speaking parts and God knows how many scenes. The result is a film that's complex and not complicated. These are two very different things. The complicated is usually reductive and one-dimensional — its structure being the only thing that makes it interesting — while the complex can appear to be very simple at first. And so, if I summarized it for you, The Life of the Dead would sound like nothing — even an hour would seem too long for the plot. Family and friends gather at a house, seeing what'll happen to a sibling who's been hospitalized following a suicide attempt. There are the usual characters of Desplechin the screenwriter: parents, adult children, the fiancée who feels like she's in over her head. But those familial elements that define Desplechin's scripts — whether at the center (Kings & Queen, A Christmas Tale) or on the sidelines (Esther Kahn, La Sentinelle) — aren't what makes a Desplechin film. Anyone can make a movie about siblings and families (it seems like hundreds of these films are made every year), but not everyone can put four people in a frame the way Desplechin the director does. No one else can give a few stray words said in the midst of a crowd the intensity of a shout.

There's a certain pleasure to coming late to a director's first film. There are always little discoveries you make, especially if the director is working on a smaller scale. We tend to think, for instance, of family as Desplechin's great theme — it's here, too, front and center. But, like they were for Cassavetes, the family and the theatre (the "center" of Desplechin's later Esther Kahn) aren't "things" in and of themselves as much as ways to best articulate feeling. For both directors, people express themselves most truly when given roles — the role of the child, the parent, the outsider, the actor, the audience or the director. The impromptu soccer game towards the end of The Life of the Dead isn't sport — it's the sight of people struggling to find roles within a certain framework. The other thing you end up either discovering or confirming (depending on whether you've seen a Desplechin film before or not) is the director's way with faces. In this film's miniature images, they seem to dominate even more than in his other work. This is even truer in wide shots, when they are set against three or four other facial expressions, than in the close-ups. It's as though a facial expression, on its own, expresses "only" an emotion, but within the context of other reactions, it becomes a statement about a situation, too.

What distinguishes Desplechin here — and what's distinguished all of his work since — is intelligence, which isn't the same thing as intellect. He's a smart guy, I'll admit, but the knowledge that informs his work is nothing without a certain willingness. It's the same sort of intelligence Cassavetes had making Gloria and Love Streams. The versatility that gives the room where the adult children hide from the parents, thick with cigarette and marijuana smoke, a rapid movement even when the characters barely move (though bodies may remain seated, an active conversation can travel far). Long takes, short ones, framings loose or immobile — whatever he needs, whenever he needs it.

***

The Life of the Dead is now playing at The Auteurs.

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