Dir.  Todd Solondz. USA. 2009.

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A bizarre retread of old ground for Solondz sees him lose the clinical focus which defined his earlier work, as Life During Wartime descends into a cold, detached and utterly empty exercise in a dis-earnest examination of paedophilia and its lingering effects.

The film begins with a nicely framed scene that seems at first glance straight from the world of the Red Room from Twin Peaks. A couple talk at a table in close-ups, with muted-psychedelic waves as décor behind them.  The theatricality and intensity of their conversation gives an air of wonder to the opening, making you eagerly try to find for feet for what kind of film you could be in for – perhaps a new, surrealist exploration for Solondz? However, he instead decides to deflate this sense of mystery and intrigue, moving away from the close-ups of the couples, and framing them in a more conventional way as a waitress interrupts their conversation and lets out that she knows about the man’s perverse past.  The dialogue remains affected and unnatural, even though the situation has now planted itself within reality. This scene acts as a prologue to the movie, which then shifts character focus to a separate story.

This prologue reveals many of the film’s frustrating and irritating weaknesses which continue throughout. The primary one coming through the dialogue and tone of their conversation, which at once arrests our attention, but then deflates and stops taking itself seriously. The effect this produces gives the feeling that Solondz is not only mocking us in our cinematic expectations, but in rather bad taste, also mocking himself as a filmmaker. Unfortunately for him though, we are not all the puppets of his theatre, and have no inclination to bow down to the wit of a superior mind in this spectacle. The dialogue loses its power to shock or arrest us as the film progresses along a rather unimaginative and poorly developed narrative structure.

The film comes to life a few scenes later though after a divorced mother comes home to her son after meeting a new man and instantly falling in love. Here Solondz’s ability to find an unusual chemistry and interplay in human relations sparkles as in the kitchen the mother lets her son know about her new man, still caught up in his charm. She is experiencing her thoughts about him for the first time, and out loud, completely forgetting that she shouldn’t be talking about this kind of thing with her inquisitive young son, telling him the man made her “wet all over” just from touching her elbow. The absurdity works well here because the situation becomes somewhat believable in the form of a broken family. When she gathers her senses, the boy then asks her “Are you still wet?” To which she replies, “No, I… dried myself… with a paper towel.” This is a rare highlight in the pic, and one of the funniest scenes the movie has to offer from its interplay with the boy’s innocence and inquisitive nature, and his mother’s momentary loss of control.

The film then meanders through a range of story lines, with the lady from the beginning meeting her dead husband (played by PeeWee Herman for no justifiable reason). The film also wastes the great talent and screen-presence of Ciarán Hinds (of BBC’s Rome fame), though he can’t help being engaging throughout as the boy’s dad coming out of jail after abusing him as a child.

Ultimately the film falls flat because Solondz this time, in spite of the subject matter, or maybe in a way because of it, plays it too safe. The dialogue plays like ironic monologues, which mock you if you take them too seriously. But all of this sardonic posturing really just feels like the act of a director who has lost anything of interest to say. He is scared of being earnest in case he falls short, and feels the pain of failure because of it. Instead, he keeps everything at a distance, with an irony that puts him above judgement. In reality this is the work of a cowardly filmmaker who does not want to be made accountable, or to take responsibility for his beliefs or his statements. He seems to be above all of life’s problems and struggles, looking down on the rest of us with a mocking gaze. As a film viewer, it’s hard not to find this just plain insulting and emptily arrogant. 

Shaun McDonald

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