Since the American invasion – and consequent wars – in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken place so far away from the Western hemisphere, it’s become strange for some Americans – those not closely affected by the 9/11 attacks and those who do not personally know the soldiers sent to such faraway places – to acknowledge that these are indeed times of war. The differences between these days and the great world wars of the past aren’t only found in the location of the battlefields (WWII, for example, used nearly the entire planet as its deadly playground) but in the changes that society endures.
In these times, the internet has become a tool that connects and isolates us, while media has taught us that anything and everything should be used for personal consumption. Whether we have become more desensitized or not isn’t the question at hand; the dilemma here is how much of this has interfered with our global vision.
Leave it to Todd Solondz to try and answer these questions in the pithily titled Life During Wartime, a sequel of sorts to his controversial 1998 film Happiness. Keeping with the themes explored in the previous chapter, Solondz studies the nature of forgiveness using the Jordan sisters – Joy, Trish, and Helen – as his measuring points. The sisters, as you might recall from Happiness, aren’t precisely beacons of perfection; they endure deaths, selfishness, and even child abuse at the hands of the men in their lives.
What comes off as the first twist in Life During Wartime is that all of these characters we saw in Happiness are now played by different actors. This might not be an issue for those who have never seen Happiness. Solondz reveals in a Q&A included in this Criterion DVD that it might be “advantageous” to approach these characters for the first time.
It’s not difficult to understand what’s going on. In a nutshell, the misfortunately named Joy (Shirley Henderson) is coping with the sexual problems of her husband Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams) while dealing with surprise visits by the ghost of her former boyfriend Andy (Paul Reubens), who committed suicide after she rejected him. Trish (Allison Janney) has been trying to move on with her life after her husband Bill (Ciarán Hinds) was sent to prison for raping a child. She pretends he’s dead and keeps his sentence a secret from her younger son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), who, with the approach of his bar mitzvah, begins to ask her questions about what it means to become a man.
Life During Wartime‘s story begins, we see Trish starting a relationship with the much older Harvey (Michael Lerner) whom she confesses is not her type at all, but it might just be what she needs to finally achieve normalcy. The action this time around has been moved from New Jersey to Florida (or the best version of it they could come up with, given that the film was shot in Puerto Rico), and the extraordinary cinematographer Ed Lachman creates poetic irony by coming up with a warm, almost burnt out color palette, that places the characters’ misery in a climate where it shouldn’t be fathomable.
The action moves to California when Joy visits her sister Helen (Ally Sheedy) for a couple of scenes, and it becomes even more obvious that the whole idea of the film is to subvert our notion of who these people really are. The scenes in California are bathed in milky whites that evoke some sort of celestial peacefulness. Inversely, Sheedy plays Helen like a hellish manifestation as she pulls out the passive-aggressive guns on Joy. Her scenes might be the richest in the film because her line delivery taps into the essence of Solondz’s oeuvre, thus trying to get the audience to empathize with those it’s learned to fear and hate.
Nobody might want to spend time with these people, but not doing so takes us away from observing different aspects of humanity. Solondz never treats his characters like freaks or monsters – despite some of them calling themselves just that – he shows them an overwhelming compassion that makes us look twice at them and try to find the light within. Of course, it helps that the ensemble is so fearless.
One of the superb bonus featurettes in the Criterion DVD shows the love all these players had for their director. Sheedy, Williams, and Hinds seem in awe of how he treats the characters as pieces of himself without turning them into obnoxious celebrations of his flaws. Williams leads us to the rather fascinating point that he was cast because of the scar across his face as if the director wanted to manifest physical signs of the things these people carry inside.
Throughout Life During Wartime, Solondz makes an excellent point of reminding us that Americans’ notion of war has changed. And even if he assures us that he’s not particularly interested in symbols, the film thrives with them. Whether with the colors he uses, the recurrence of dreams and ethereal situations in some characters, or even the new cast, the film demands to be read by different individual layers. “Sometimes it’s better not to understand,” says Trish as if Solondz is telling us to surrender to the plot’s turns with the same thirst for life the Jordan sisters seem to crave.
In Life During Wartime‘s centerpiece, Charlotte Rampling appears, playing a stranger who seduces the newly out-of-prison Bill. “I see a man, and he’s alone, and he’s straight,” she says to justify the lack of sensitivity she needs to conceive this one-night stand. As they engage in an intense tête-à-tête, Bill’s lack of life seems to receive a jolt from this woman’s unorthodox views, and as she looks for sexual connection, he tries to cope with the bigger challenges, including finding forgiveness. She condescendingly reminds him that only losers expect to receive such a thing, and we understand, in these post-9/11 times, that such wars are fought within ourselves.