Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: LIFE DURING WARTIME

by: Joshua Brunsting
July 26th, 2011

When it comes to directors that one would assume would be well represented in the Criterion Collection, Todd Solondz is one of those filmmakers. However, despite Solondz being a highly influential auteur within the indie film world, it’s taken over 570 releases for the director to finally hit the collection. And it’s a sequel no less (well, kind of a sequel, at least).

A neo-sequel to his beloved masterpiece HAPPINESS, LIFE DURING WARTIME is Solondz’s first entry in the Criterion Collection, and finds a new cast taking on characters introduced over a decade prior. Starring Shirley Henderson, Allison Janney, Ally Sheedy, and Ciaran Hinds, the film follows a collection of stories of people with major existential issues. A recently released pedophile, a woman dealing with the return of a true blue ghost out of her past, a mother trying to deal with her son, and a burgeoning relationship are just some of the characters one meets during the film.

LIFE DURING WARTIME plays as a sequel of sorts to Solondz’s HAPPINESS, and plays as an odd partner to that film. Visually, Solondz and his cinematographer Ed Lachman have crafted an utterly masterful piece of drama. Solondz doesn’t have the most inventive of cameras, but what he does know is performances.  Allowing for turns from Janney, Hinds, and the rest of the film’s cast to really seep into the viewer’s heart. Ally Sheedy gives a fantastic, if all to brief turn here as one of a trio of sisters, with Shirley Henderson being the film’s true star as another sister.  Now, to say things weren’t all that glorious come the end of HAPPINESS, and here, things don’t get much better. That said, the film is vibrantly natural in its style, and has this burnt out color palette making the overall emotion all the more visceral and pertinent.

Performance-wise, this film is equally as strong. Henderson, as mentioned above, is the strongest of the film’s cast, as an awkward and emotionally distraught woman dealing with a cracking relationship and the return of the ghost of a lover from her past. Michael Kenneth Williams plays her current lover in a small role, and steals every single scene he has a beat in. He himself has a troubled past, and he plays each emotional beat perfectly. Ciaran Hinds is also great here as a quiet reformed pedophile, with the remainder of the cast; Janney, Michael Lerner, Chris Marquette, and Paul Reubens, to really bring their A-game.

A meditation on forgiveness, LIFE DURING WARTIME is an odd little film. Thematically, the film works more than it has any right to. Despite a few aspects that don’t quite blend well together, you really get the sense that, since 1998’s HAPPINESS, the world has truly changed. The existential issues that each of these characters have really work well in the overall scheme of the film’s narrative. They also make sense within its thematic palette. Each character finds him or herself in the midst of a crisis of forgiveness and love of sorts, and the ambiguous nature of the film really fits well with the always ambiguous nature of human emotion, and particularly forgiveness and our ability to resolve. It lacks the normal three act structure, but with this type of story both structurally and thematically, it works perfectly.

That said, the film isn’t without flaw. Ultimately, the film is hard to truly dig into. Solondz is not one to shy away from anything, so for some this may be a bit too dark or a bit too tough to sift through. The ambiguous nature of the film and the lack of a three act structure also makes the film tough to recommend based on any sort of rewarding attribute. The film has the ability to emotionally effect the viewer, but the film does have the appearance of being something far more manipulative that it truly is. Not the most gratifying of film, LIFE DURING WARTIME does have a lot working under the hood for those willing to dig deeper than just the superficial level. With a gorgeous exterior, this is a car that’s best driven with an open mind.

It’s also one hell of a beautiful release as well, if not one that’s at all dense. On an audio and visual level, the film is gorgeous. The audio sounds crisp, but also quite subdued, which fits this film like a glove. Visually, the burnt out color palette bursts right off of the screen. These aren’t beautiful people, on the inside or outside, and in HD the flaws become visceral and effecting in both aspect.

However, lacking in many special features, this is a hard release to recommend. The best supplement here is the “Ask Todd” segment of the disc, but it’s a tough watch. Best described as an audio commentary without the visuals, the supplement features Solondz answering questions from fans, and while it’s enlightening, it’s best used as one would use a podcast. Toss it on while you’re cooking or reading, and you’ll love it. There is also a really interesting, if too short, making of documentary, and an interview with DP Lachman, which is also interesting, but much too brief. Toss in a trailer, and while the film itself may be great, the supplemental material make this a release that’s perfect for the currently running 50% off Barnes and Noble sale, but a tough one to choose otherwise.

Overall, LIFE DURING WARTIME is a film that must be seen. The most recent film from one of the most influential names in modern American independent cinema, WARTIME is a luscious film with fantastic performance after fantastic performance. A little light on the supplements, the release is still an important one within the Criterion Collection, and it’s one that should be seen. Not the best one July has to offer, but it’s solid nonetheless.

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