Happiness ten years on, with a different cast, in this black comedy from Todd Solondz, released on DVD by Artificial Eye.
Writer/director Todd Solondz came to people’s attention with his second feature, Welcome to the Dollhouse in 1995, followed by Happiness three years later. While both dealt with uncomfortable, controversial subject matter, especially the latter, Solondz’s films impressed by their command of a steely, unsentimental, blackly comic tone, which even made such characters as a paedophile (in Happiness) understandable and not entirely unsympathetic, without once condoning his actions.
Unfortunately, Solondz hasn’t managed to follow up that one-two punch. The two-part Storytelling by all accounts fell apart in the editing room, with scenes involving James Van der Beek not making the final cut. The result was inconsequential, and not free of a tendency (Solondz was not alone in in US indie cinema in this) to set up characters just to dump on them and to be looked down upon from a presumably greater, more sophisticated height. You couldn’t quite escape the sense that he was pandering to the prejudices of the intelligent, upscale audience likely to be watching a Solondz film in the first place. Palindromes followed, which I reviewed here five years ago and wondered then if Solondz was running out of things to say. One sign of this is often a retreading old ground and revisiting earlier successes. Palindromes reprised one character from Dollhouse and told us what had happened to that film’s protagonist. (It wasn’t pretty.) This continues in Life During Wartime which is a direct sequel to Happiness. In Palindromes, Solondz cast eight dissimilar actors in the central role as a kind of alienation effect. In Life During Wartime, he develops this idea further by recasting every part from the earlier film.
It’s ten years since the events of Happiness. Bill (Ciarán Hinds), convicted of paedophilia in the earlier film, is released from jail. His ex-wife wife Trish (Allison Janney) has kept the truth from their youngest son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), who believes that his father is dead. Trish, moved from New Jersey to Miami, is about to be married to Harvey (Michael Lerner). Meanwhile, Trish’s sister Joy (Shirley Henderson), who works at a correctional institute, has left her husband Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams), a man who has not got over an addiction to making obscene phone calls. Trish and Joy’s sister Helen (Ally Sheedy) is a successful Hollywood actress, but finds her fame hard to bear.
Life During Wartime has a strong cast, even though some of the actors play what amount to extended cameos. Paul Reubens appears as Joy’s ex-husband and Charlotte Rampling as a woman with whom Bill has a one-night stand during which fireworks fly. The film is structured as a series of episodes during which what was previously secret comes to light, in particular the discoveries of young Timmy about his father, and deals with whether its characters can forgive and forget. While Happiness in its various strands was a film with a range and a vision, if a dyspeptic one, Life During Wartime (three quarters of an hour shorter than its predecessor) is for the most part unilluminating and lightweight. Ed Lachman’s photography, shot in high-def (4K resolution) on the Red One rather than on film, is harsh and contrasty, bathing much of the action in an orange or red tone. There’s a title song with lyrics by Solondz, sung by Henderson midway through the film and by Devendra Banhart over the closing credits.
Solondz has a proven talent, if a dark one, and Happiness remains his best film. He has spent a decade trying to follow it up, but unfortunately Life During Wartime is not what was hoped for.
Life During Wartime is released by Artificial Eye on a dual-layered disc encoded for all regions.
The DVD transfer is in the ratio of 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced. Given the high-def source I’ve no doubt that this is an accurate rendition of what Solondz and Lachman intended – though not a look that I especially liked, especially the prevailing orange tone. Contrast is high, which means that detail sometimes is lost in the shadows.
There are two soundtracks, Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround (2.0). This is very much a dialogue-driven film, so the soundtrack is very much front and centre for the most part. It opens up a little in a party scene late on, with the subwoofer contributing to the basslines of the songs played on the soundtrack. There are no subtitles, which is Artificial Eye’s policy on their English-language releases, though it’s not one that I’d like to encourage.
Solondz is a filmmaker who does not provide extras for his films, so the only one on this disc is ready-made, namely the theatrical trailer (2:02). Also provided are some trailers for other Artificial Eye releases, as three separate titles which play as a single item: The Class, Katyń and Fish Tank.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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