Death: A Love Story (1999)

Michelle Le Brun’s Death: A Love Story follows her husband Mel Howard through the last year of his life. A stunning testament to his life and death, it also demonstrates how film (or in this case, video) can preserve memory and shape meaning. Shot on a home video camera using only the in-camera microphone, Death: A Love Story begins with the diagnosis, then traces the couple’s efforts to decide among almost hopeless treatment options, frustration with medical bureaucracy, and exploration of alternative treatments.

The couple’s will to document is at once professional and passionate. Hollywood producer Howard was also an actor (Hester Street, Bob Dylan’s Renaldo and Clara) and educator (the Chairman of the Boston University film school, a Co-Founding Associate Director of the American Film Institute). Le Brun began her career as a Dance Therapist and Performance Artist, turned to acting and eventually, filmmaking. In 1995, two years after their marriage, Howard was diagnosed with liver cancer. After chemotherapy and a liver transplant, he died 12 July 1996.

Some of this is tough going. Though Howard doesn’t expire on camera, we do hear an audio track of him describing what he sees and hears as he is about to pass away. Yet the film manages a ruminative, even good-humored tone as the couple respond with a balance of fear and faith. Its meditation is often affirming and instructive, calling to mind Mark Romanek’s recent music video of Johnny Cash’s “Hurt,” which also takes the measure of a life through visual imagery.

Howard and Le Brun weigh quality of life issues: should he have invasive treatments, even though they’re likely to fail and leave him in pain for his remaining months? There is no right answer. When he gets a liver transplant and chemotherapy, it does fail; the new liver kills him by attacking his body. As Howard loses control over that body, the film starts to focus on his spiritual life. Understandably scared and confused, he meditates and prays, consults Buddhism, and laughs with his friends. Nearing his end, he says he has learned the importance of “healing” over “curing,” and that “authentic healing” is “an opening of the closed spaces in my heart.”

He imparts this new sense of peace to his wife. And, as Howard tries to explain to her what the process feels like, the film looks for metaphors, aural and visual. During his last hours, Howard and Le Brun converse in the hospital; this track is overlaid with her narration, added later. We see footage of trees, animated fires dissolving into photographs of the couple with friends or video from their wedding. Howard describes what he has learned to value: “Thanksgiving, real love, real friendship, real honor, real artistry, real communication, by not just you and me, but by a whole community of other artists.”

Le Brun’s voiceover catalogues her own reactions: anger at the doctors’ indifference, frustration at the chemicals burning her husband’s body, and at last, acceptance. While he describes what he sees as he dies — a bright light and comforting presences — Le Brun reveals that she came to share Howard’s calm. Her choice to use these audiotapes is a risky one. The sequence’s visuals could have lapsed into trite New Age-y clichés, and indeed, images of sunsets and birds almost push it too far. But for the most part, the movie achieves warmth rather than melodrama, honesty rather than mawkishness.

Le Brun frames the idea that life is a spiritual passage to death with a poem by Rumi, urging the reader to “listen deeply” and “not go back to sleep.” Le Brun thanks Howard for the gift of waking her to this metaphysical acceptance, giving her a glimpse of “the eternal,” and “the immense love, fierce and gentle, that we all come from and return to.” Lest we worry that she is exploiting Howard’s death, Le Brun explains she never planned to make a documentary. At the time of the events shown, they were making home movies of their lives together. It was only after his death that she decided their observations might be worth sharing with others, so she edited the footage into this documentary.

Death: A Love Story premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1999 as an Official Selection in the Documentary Film category and a nominee for the Grand Jury Prize. In spite of such acclaim, Le Brun has struggled to get the film seen beyond its airing on some PBS stations, as she notes in her 2001 interview for WGBH’s Indie Select filmmaker series (included as an extra feature on the DVD). Aside from the film’s own strengths and weaknesses, the topic of death is a hard sell, given, as Le Brun asserts, Western culture’s reluctance to confront it. Death: A Love Story suggests that narrative film can help both makers and viewers to work through difficult philosophical questions, like how to live and die with dignity.