Things We Lost In The Fire
The most difficult human emotion to deal with is grief. When a loved one dies those left behind rarely know how to cope, how to fill the void that is left in their hearts. Creating a film that focuses on people struggling to cope with life after the death on someone close is one of the more difficult stories to tell. The writer has to provide a script that is realistic without going over to the melodramatic. The dialogue has to be more emotional and the danger is to go over the top and become unintentionally comical. For the director they have to be careful not to give in to the allure of using the typical art house or film school tricks with color filters and strange camera angels. A story of loss works best when told in a plain, straight forward fashion. The film needs to let the story tell itself and the cast connect with the actors. The latest film by Danish writer and director, Susanne Bier, ‘The Things We Lost in the Fire’ has its flaws but it deftly avoids the most common pitfalls of this genre. This is an honest, human exploration of the worse time in a woman’s life, the time following the unexpected killing of her husband. What helps this film over the few shortcomings it has is the amazing cast. They reach out of the screen and grab the audience not letting go until the closing credits begin to roll.
Susanne Bier may not be a household name here in America but she is well know to the foreign film and festival set. She has a practical and economical directing style that comes right to the point. Much of this is most likely due to her previous association with the Dogme 95 created by fellow Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. This is a draconian, extremely strict form of film making where the director agrees to numerous restrictions. They cannot bring to the set any props, all music must be natural to the environment, there must be a single timeline (the present) and a hand held camera is the only one allowed. While Beir has moved on from the Dogma Collective she uses the experience to the best possible measure here. She proves what many critics of Dogma 95 have said in the past, it is great training for a director but isn’t practical for most films. Her strict directorial upbringing has given her the means to put aside the affectations of her craft and focus on the humanity of the story. She has an eye for detail that is masterful and creative. It is also interesting to see how someone from another country views grief as played out here in the States. This detaches Bier from the clichés of our story tellers and brings out the universal nature of grieving. With a background devoid of the usual distractions Bier is able to do what a great director has to; get the best possible performance from her cast. She knows she has great talent in front of the camera and she gives them every opportunity to show their abilities. The only downside of her direction that is visible is Bier’s perchance for extremely close-ups of body parts. She will focus on fingers touching or eyes reacting pulling too close for comfort. She is best when she uses a wider shot to allow the body language of the actors to come through. This may be her first American made film but hopefully it will not be her last.
This is the first motion picture script for writer Allan Loeb. It is something that this person does not have a long string of hits behind him. There is efficiency to his story that allows the story to unfold organically. So many scripts dealing with the subject of personal loss force the issue. They try too hard to write about grief to get the emotional honestly across to the audience. Loeb creates a platform for the actors and gives them the words and situations they need to convey the plot. For example a physical relationship is alluded to between the two main characters. This is not from a need for lust or sex but just two people that crave human contact. It is a tender moment of people trying their best to heal. The part of the deceased husband does suffer the most in this script. He is painted broadly as a man without any discernable human flaws. In one way this could work as the idealized remembrance of his widow.
The film begins with Audrey Burke (Halle Berry) lying in bed next to her young son, Dory (Micah Berry). Let legs are curled up to fit in the small bed. She remembers her husband, Brian (David Duchovny) and how well he got along with their son. Brain was the perfect father and husband, loving and giving. These were also the personality traits that would plunge the family into a tailspin of despair. Brian was shot while trying to save someone’s life. He placed himself between a woman and her out of control husband and was shot for his effort. This was typical of him, always putting others first. No his family is drifting without him. Also left behind by the death is their young daughter, Harper (Alexis Llewellyn). At the funeral Audrey meets up with her husband’s life long friend, Jerry Sunborne (Benicio Del Toro). He looks out of place with a crumpled suit, undone tie and cigarette stuck behind his ear. Initially Audrey forgot to inform Jerry of the funeral but dispatches her brother to bring him. Jerry has been having a tough time lately. He is trying to recover from a long time of abusing drugs. Audrey invites him to stay in an apartment in her garage. He gets along naturally with the children but every day is a battle to stay away from the drugs. These are two extremely damaged human beings who wind up reaching out to one another for comfort and strength. Audrey even asks Jerry to share her bed, not in s sexual way just to have someone close to her. She misses the nearness of Brian. Jerry starts to try to help her children. When he convinces Dory to over come her fear of going underwater in the pool Audrey becomes upset and kicks Jerry out of the garage apartment. He quickly turns to the only means of solace he knows, drugs.
This is a film that is an actor’s tour de force. Berry has finally come back from the post Oscar curse of bad films. After some bad horror flicks and the dreadful ‘Catwoman’ she is back with a role she can actually act in. She plays Audrey as a woman who had what everyone would agree is as close to the perfect life as possible. Audrey based her view of the world through her family and now with her husband gone that world view is shattered. Berry reaches deep down to channel the pain that this character is feeling. Juxtaposed to Berry is yet another stellar performance by Del Toro. He is the sort of actor who quietly gives one knock out performance after another. Here his presentation of a man who was once a successful attorney who hides from life behind drugs. He and Berry provide a look at two broken people. While the reasons and coping skills are different they both are empty and in need of human compassion.
Dreamworks, through Paramount has released this film to DVD with the much deserved attention it deserves. The DVD is available in either regular DVD or HD-DVD. Instead of the usual director’s commentary track they give a discussion of the film. Among the crew members chiming in are Bier, Loeb and producer Sam Mendes. They each disassemble the film showing just how it was brought to the screen. There are also seven deleted scenes. This is a thoughtful, beautifully filmed story that we all can relate to.