Humor in Sadness, Beauty in Wretchednes, 'Life is Sweet'

by Nicholas Thomson

24 June 2013

Laughter can be a weapon, or maybe an armor against sorrow. It might not always come as naturally as we think.

A British family laughs in the face of despair.

cover art

Life is Sweet

Director: Mike Leigh
Cast: Alison Steadman, Jim Broadbent, Timothy Spall, Claire Skinner, Jane Horrocks, David Thewlis, Moya Brady and Stephen Rea

US DVD: 28 May 2013

“Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart.”
—Ecclesiastes 7:3.

“Fake it till you make it.”
—Alcoholics Anonymous

There’s something uniquely maudlin about a palette of washed out pastels. In a poetic mood, I might say that this soft color scheme echoes the humor that seems to keep impoverished British folks going. Humor in sadness, beauty in wretchedness; these are the poles of Life is Sweet . Laughter can be a weapon, or maybe an armor against sorrow. It might not always come as naturally as we think.

Color in this film has been wrung to the point of being dessicated. It’s as if the atmosphere were anorexic, leaving only the faintest trace of life. And yet, what remains dances brilliantly along the endless horizon of a bleak world of penury and sadness. Made with care and precision, the film brings out the latent possibility in a minimalistic style. 

A worn out family tries to hold it together, beaming and bawling through days spent at torturous jobs, or unemployed in the garden. Dreams of better lives have become trite after years of disappointment. They try to put on good faces despite their seemingly ineluctable failure.

The mum Wendy (Alison Steadman) is the core, the center that holds. She bears the greatest burden. Laughter falls from her pretty, wizened face, at times enchanting and at others tinged with scorn. It’s clear that her rather anti-social daughters resent her charm. The dad Andy (Jim Broadbent) is a simple man, easily influenced and perhaps a bit of a lush. They live with their two, striking twin daughters Nicola and Natalie. The girls are in their early 20s but don’t look older than 15, making Nicola’s kinky sex scenes a bit jarring.

Natalie is bookish and respectful. One could easily mistake her for a boy and she works as a plumber. She overcompensates for her sister’s boorish acting out by doting on everyone else in the family. A child choosing to bear the burden of the most emotionally mature in a family is generally not a sign of the well-adjusted. Her sister Natalie is a layabout. She postures, wearing anachronistic punky T-Shirts with phrases she can hardly be expected to understand like “Bollocks to the Poll Tax” (a reference to a mass tax implemented by Margaret Thatcher that Natalie has certainly never had to pay). Hands constantly twitching and head braying to avoid eye contact, Natalie is deeply insecure in her own skin.

Further, she is bulimic. She keeps a lock box full of candy bars and chips that she gorges on and immediately throws up into a plastic bag every night. At mealtimes she sits sullenly, smoking, calling her family members “fascists” or “capitalists”. Despite her vitriol, there is true comedy in the acting that saves the film from becoming dour.

One of the loveliest scenes in the film is a shot of Nicola fighting with her boyfriend. He is fed up, accuses her of being a fake and hiding behind all the books with man hating titles in her room without having ever read them. She claims this is preposterous and of course she has read them all. When asked what she learned, Nicola responds “I’m a feminist”.  Innocence underscores the sadness of her aggressive tendencies.

Gastronomy looms over the entirety of the picture. Many of the shots take place in the family home; the camera peers through doorways into the cramped, homey dining room.  A central plot device is Andy being conned into buying a food truck from his drunken friend. The truck becomes a mainstay set piece; an eternal reminder of the need to laugh at futility.

A satellite character Aubrey, a corpulent, comedic genius in a clownish hat and a San Francisco Giants Starter jacket opens a restaurant named “The Regret Rien” tres exclusive . This sly reference to Edith Piaf, like the French theme played throughout the film are stinging sendups of the provincial in Europe. Nicola’s sexual perversion of choice- having her beau eat chocolate off of her naked body until he is sick.

Life is Sweet is a wonderful film. It’s existential and weird and uncomfortable, but the perfect comedic timing the actors lend to the script engulf you. Moreover, where a lesser director would feel complacent in the shallow end of art house posturing, Leigh takes up the gauntlet and in the final act allows the tension to boil over in a painful, cathartic confrontation between Wendy and Nicola. Yet he does not allow himself to veer into the sentimental. Nicola, in the finale asks her sister for some money for a pack of “fags”. It’s a trope that has been played throughout the film for laughs, and the last time it’s done it is both touching and hilarious.

Mike Leigh provides a thorough, even meticulous at times run down of the practical realities of shooting the film in an audio commentary. It’s fascinating for filmmakers, but perhaps a bit nitpicky for the workaday film snob. He has also contributed a fine interview conducted at the National Film Theatre in London in 1991, shortly after the film’s release.

There are five short films directed by Leigh intended for his proposed television series: Five Short Films , which are lovely and unsettling although I have a hunch one might do well to seek out his other feature films before going to these. Finally, as per usual, the Criterion Collection has hired venerable critic David Sterritt to write a lovely piece espousing the virtues of the film. In the greatest critical tradition, Sterritt is able to enhance the pleasure to be found in the film rather than trying to dominate it with his own erudition.

Life is Sweet


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