Soup & Sandwich
Just yesterday I was thinking about Une mort très douce (“A Very Easy Death”) by Simone de Beauvoir, which I read some years ago in London. For some reason, I did not realize that the next film to arrive from my Netflix queue would be The Savages, an independent film starring Laura Linney and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, written and directed by Tamara Jenkins. Both works deal with some similar themes about the end of a parent’s life, and yet could not be more different.
In de Beauvoir’s partially autobiographical work, she describes the gradual decline and death of her elderly mother. Over the course of the novella, de Beauvoir carefully considers the mother-daughter relationship, particularly with regard to how it defined who she herself is, as well as chastising the state of contemporary medical care. In the film, Jenkins’ characters learn that their estranged father has advanced dementia, and that they will need to arrange for his care as he slips away from them more permanently than he did when he last saw them 20 years earlier. In the process, the brother and sister have to question themselves, and where their own lives are heading now that they are at this turning point.
Whereas de Beauvoir finds little or no ultimate meaning in the care of her mother, Jenkins does not take so harsh a view of filial duty. As might be expected, de Beauvoir makes the story of her mother’s death ultimately a story about herself, and while the characters of Wendy Savage (Linney) and John Savage (Hoffman) in Jenkins’ film are certainly selfish, by the end of the film the experience of having seen their father out of this life has given each of them an unexpected willingness to work for and find selfless love – a nobility of sacrifice that is utterly lacking in the twisted, self-absorbed work of someone with the bad taste to spend most of her adult life with a complete turd like Sartre.
Jenkins drew me in straightaway, when Wendy’s answering machine picks up in an early scene. “Fasten your seat belts,” snaps the answering machine, playing a recording of Bette Davis’ most famous line in All About Eve, “it’s going to be a bumpy night.” At least Jenkins gives the viewer fair warning from the beginning. We are flat-out instructed that this is not going to be some tender, shallow, and ultimately soppy story about love and devotion at the end of life for the “O Magazine” crowd. Instead, perhaps by daring to quote directly from one of the greatest screenplays ever written, Jenkins pays homage to what inspired her as a writer as she considered events from her own life.
As I wrote about earlier this week, in his Letter to the Philippians St. Paul tells us, in effect, that life is really nothing but a preparation for our own death and what comes after it. Each day we receive then, becomes a gift in which to work toward that crossing of the threshold. And death, particularly after a long illness, isn’t very nice at all – it’s messy, in the way that life is very, very messy. Indeed, at the midpoint of the film, John screams at Wendy in the parking lot of a nursing home,
People are dying, Wendy! Right inside that beautiful building right now, it’s a f*****g horror show! And all this wellness propaganda and the landscaping, it’s just there to obscure the miserable fact that people die! And death is gaseous and gruesome and it’s filled with s**t and piss and rotten stink!
When John and Wendy’s father finally dies, we are given none of the things that we are falsely promised by most Hollywood films on this subject (no surprise there.) There are no tearful, parting goodbyes and last reconciliations. Missing are the pleas for forgiveness and understanding, comforting prayers and last words, or even wordless looks and expressions of love. Rather more believably, there is no resolution or assurance whatsoever at the moment of death.
After their father is rushed to hospital, John and Wendy fall asleep in chairs at his bedside to await the inevitable. In a beautifully lit scene, Wendy wakes in the cold, blue light of dawn, and reaches out from her chair to take her father’s hand – only to find it lifeless. She calls to John, and the two stand together by the body of their father. “So that’s it,” she remarks, her voice a mixture of sadness and resignation, with a note of disbelief. Yet death – in this case their father’s death – was not the end. Jenkins ends the film on several unexpected, but ultimately believable, notes of hope that do not sound at all forced.
Jenkins’ script abounds with intellectual wit (not to mention some excellent moments of black humour.) Like in All About Eve, the characters in the film make frequent references to the theatre. In the beginning of the film during a telephone call, John assures his sister, “We’re not characters in a Sam Shepard play.” John himself is an expert in Berthold Brecht, whereas Wendy is trying to get a fellowship so that she can fund her attempts to become a published playwright.
At one point, Wendy castigates her theatre-producer married lover for referring to Josef von Sternberg as Erich von Stroheim, but then questions whether he is referring to the Dietrich-vehicle Blue Angel, or the Francine Prose novel of the same title about miserably failed East Coast academics. And at a rehearsal of her play, John notes that “the mix of naturalism and magical realism works.” Indeed, Wendy has an ongoing worry about naturalism throughout the film, as she frets over whether she is too bourgeois in her writing about the lower middle classes.
Whatever the strength of Jenkins’ script however, it is the pairing of Linney and Hoffman that makes this a must-see film. These are two of the best actors working today, and I was stunned to learn that they had never worked together before. The two interact effortlessly, like siblings who have, in fact, known each other their entire lives, who at one point were each other’s best friends.
The real greatness of their respective performances is in their avoidance of strangeness and histrionics. Just when you think that one of them is going to have their close-up Oscar clip moment, the quivering lip, the perfectly shot rolling tear, they don’t rise to the bait. The camera pulls away, or they do. We cannot get that close, they won’t allow it – and as a result, for much of the film disbelief is completely, superbly suspended.
The Savages is not a towering achievement of cinema by any means. You will not come away from it stunned, overwhelmed, or spellbound. It is simple, yet satisfying and honest, made from a well-chosen mise en place of script, director, and actors – like a good bowl of soup and sandwich on a rainy weekend afternoon. And very often, it is in simplicity, be it in the geometry of a Cistercian column, the delicacy of a Fra Angelico fresco, or in the rainbow reflections from a bubble of foam atop a bowl of chicken noodle, that we really do perceive some inkling of truth.