dir: Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland
Still Alice is quite a sad film. I’m sure that’s not going to be a surprise to anyone that’s heard even a little bit about what it’s about. But it is truly sad.
All the same, this is not the kind of manipulative drivel that one usually associates with these kinds of dramas. It’s also not about the nobility of suffering, or about a beautiful woman getting some disease and expiring in the most delightfully photogenic manner.
Julianne Moore has rightly been nominated for this performance, but I’m not sure that she’s necessarily going to win. Her achievement in this role is often what she chooses not to do more so than what she actually does. There is a minimum of hysterics or melodramatics in the flick, which keeps it inline with the story as it is being told.
But at least she's subtle about it.
Alice (Moore) is delivering a lecture on linguistics. She pauses, trying to recall a word that is eluding her, and then it comes to her, and she moves on.
This is only the first step down a very long road.
Define ‘irony’. Irony is a professor of linguistics, a person whose field of study is the human brain’s ability to soak up language and the structures of the brain devoted to communication, and the idea of how words form a person’s concept of their own identity, and then have her lose it all as we watch.
She visits a neurologist who gives her some simple exercises to test memory and cognitive function, and he schedules some tests.
He asks her to remember the following “John Black, 42 Washington Street, Hoboken” at the beginning of their conversation. He asks her later on, just a minute or two later.
She remembers part of it, but covers in that slightly flustered way people have of compensating.
It’s the little things the film uses as signposts of the progression of her illness, a name forgotten here or there, an appointment, a conversation, the way home. It’s like watching a horrible, tastefully expressed snowball begin really slow at the top of the mountain, gaining a terrible momentum.
Alice waits a while before she even mentions it to her husband (Alec Baldwin), who is similarly an academic, and it’s the only moment in the flick when Alice acts with an outpouring of emotion. Fear, outright terror as to what’s to come confronts her in a way she can no longer contain on her own.
Her husband’s reaction is somewhat cheering and priceless. How else would an academic confront something like this? Question the diagnosis, consider alternatives, argue that it can’t be right, that there has to be another way. In the end, though, like a lot of people, he chooses to bury himself in his work as the solution to all problems.
Is it the solution, really? Of course not, but it’s understandable. We might curse his weakness, or we might recognise it as our own.
Alice also has three kids, mostly grown up. Two of them don’t really matter (to me, at least, though I’m sure they matter to Alice until she can’t remember them anymore), but the youngest is played by Kristen Stewart, that scrawny non-actor beloved by no-one and adored by even less. She plays a struggling actor, which is somewhat ironic, since most of her career she’s struggled against her own inability to act convincingly. She even has scenes set on a stage where her awfulness is parodied, as if to say “I’m not really this bad, am I?”
It’s considered to be a particular injustice that Alice gets early onset Alzheimer’s at 50. I mean, 50 seems horribly young for anything, let along a neurological disease that hollows you out from the inside yet leaves you physically okay otherwise. That’s the bit that’s particularly terrifying.
For the rest of us, at least. I suspect people that have confronted this torment directly in their lives, through their parents or their loved ones (unlikely to be themselves, since they probably won’t remember watching the film or reading my scintillating prose on the topic) will find this flick particularly harrowing. Two close friends of mine went through much of this with their father.
The difference was he was diagnosed in his 70s, though it’s not that much of a difference because the result is the same. He survived over a decade after the diagnosis, most of that spent in care. In care. Sounds like a cop-out euphemism. It is, on my part. There is a point reached where you can’t really do anything for them, and they end up strapped to a bed, and the family just waits for them to just die already. The person they knew is gone, all memory or ability to communicate is gone, and you’re left projecting your own hopes and memories onto the living dead, each glimmer being what you hope is a shared moment, but it could be nothing more than .
Now that’s a barrel of laughs. As Alice points out, if she had cancer, it’d be way easier. That would get appropriate sympathy, she’d get progressively worse, then she’d die. Not so much here. When she visits an old folk’s home to scope out what it’s like, and what excellent, compassionate care the residents get, the person giving her the grand tour assumes Alice is there scoping it out for one of her parents. And Alice doesn’t let on that it’s for her. She is at least 30 years younger than most of the walking, aged dead she sees, people who set off alarms if they get out of their chairs, people who remember what it was like after the war, but not what happened to them a few minutes ago.
Is it tragic? It’s tragic in the sense that life, our lives, begin and end in a manner in which we hope they have meaning and purpose, but it doesn’t really work out that way. There’s no reason, no moral or metaphysical reason that Alice gets what she got (other than genetics), and her degeneration isn’t an opportunity to bond with people or appreciate beauty or life or any those things. It is, just like it is for countless others, a slowly, depressing, demoralising, grinding erasure of personality that leaves a husk of a person behind, someone too far gone to even remember to kill themselves and thus be less of a burden on their loved ones.
Yes, it’s sad, but it doesn’t aim to wrench tears unearned from our tear ducts. The film is edited, eventually, perhaps in a manner which is meant to give us a sense of what it could be like to have this condition, in that for Alice there aren’t connective moments: one moment she’s one place, the next moment she’s somewhere completely different, and neither she nor we have any idea how much time has passed between those scenes.
It recalled for me another film which dealt with memory or the lack thereof as part of its construct, though it’s a film completely unrelated in tone or in how many Guy Pearces are in it: Memento, yes, Memento. They have no other connection other than the editing of both films is crucial in depicting the manner in which the lead character has a condition which renders linearity and chronology something completely changeable. Up for grabs. Superfluous.
Watching this flick was a humbling experience. We never can know what’s coming for any of us, regardless of genetic screening or screaming news headlines. The worst can happen, and all we can do is the best we can manage at given moments, for as long as we can, until we can’t.
Watching Alice deal with this, with what her life becomes, and her family as well, results in many scenes of melancholy and a few of quiet joy. It’s impossible to overstate just how good Moore is, but really all she’s doing over time is less and less, performing less and less, and that is no mean feat. Actors often have the tendency to go big, to belt our their performances so those in the cheap seats can’t miss How Great Their Performance Is. Moore, and the directors, trust that we’ll get it.
Still Alice. Fun for the whole family. Except don’t bring grandma/grandpa along, it’ll cut too close to the bone, and then they’ll suspect that you’re going to drop them off at a care facility afterwards, because why not?
8 times life is too, too cruel sometimes/always out of 10
“The art of losing isn't hard to master: so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster” – all one’s own losses are catastrophes; not so much everyone else’s – Still Alice