Saturday, October 26, 2013

What’s Left Untasted: The Criterion Collection's DVD release of Mike Leigh's Life is Sweet

Jane Horrocks and Claire Skinner in Life is Sweet

The irrepressible couple at the center of Mike Leigh’s Life is Sweet (1990) – released on Blu-ray and regular DVD this year by the Criterion Collection in an impeccably restored digital print – are Wendy (Alison Steadman) and Andy (Jim Broadbent), working class parents whose good-natured pleasure in daily life is laced with melancholy. Faithful to family life, they have no illusions about the compromises they’ve had to accept to raise their twin daughters, Nicola (Jane Horrocks) and Natalie (Claire Skinner), who at twenty-two are a solid four years older than their parents were when they were born. Humor and hope keep them tethered. Andy is susceptible to grand schemes for the future, as in the rusted junkyard lunch wagon he buys for a marked-up fee with the fantasy of striking out in his own business; Wendy accepts his foibles with her infectious laugh, a programmed response to life’s little absurdities. But their best qualities blinker them, too. Wendy, with all her girlishness and her resolute positivity, doesn’t know what to do with Natalie’s ambiguous sexuality – she wears men’s clothes and works as a plumber – or Nicola’s bulimic, depressive stupors which, in spite of living under her family’s roof, haven’t improved. And Andy often can’t see what’s right in front of him: it’s the price he pays for clinging to impossible aspirations. Food is the film’s theme and its central metaphor: life may be sweet, but so much of it goes untasted.

Leigh is one of our two greatest living directors of realism – the other is the American filmmaker Jonathan Demme – and Life is Sweet is an immaculate and masterful instance of his approach. There’s a serene quality to this film as it takes in the mercurial complexities of daily living. Like his last two features, Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) and Another Year (2010), Life is Sweet is about the mystery of why some people manage to be happy while others are not. The picture moves between each member of the family, contrasting the steadfast Wendy, Andy and Natalie with the neurotic Nicola and their young friend Aubrey (Timothy Spall) whose disastrous attempt to open a French restaurant – Le Regret Rien – turns him into the movie’s tragic clown. But unlike Another Year, which had a curdled view of individuals as prisoners of their own temperaments, Life is Sweet is gloriously content to come up with no answers about the secret to fulfillment. Leigh is often seen as an inheritor of the British kitchen sink dramas of the fifties and sixties, about the domestic lives of angry young working-class men and women, but there’s no fist waving in his films. (Nicola, whose political life consists of wearing an oversized t-shirt reading “Bollocks to the Poll Tax” and calling her mother a fascist, is a parody of this kind of working class hero.) What he actually revives is the tradition of theatrical naturalism nurtured by the fin-du-siècle European playwrights like Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov who turned their theaters into middle class homes with the fourth wall removed. Life is Sweet is a window into a world its director doesn’t seek to justify or explain.

Director Mike Leigh
What made the modernists playwrights so radical was their view that life is fundamentally unscripted – it doesn’t follow the patterns or plots of conventional narratives, with beginnings, middles and ends. Like Chekhov in his collaboration with the visionary director Konstantin Stanislavski, Leigh achieves a limber and nuanced acting style that comes from his theater background, where the screenplays are based on improvisations he and his actors develop in months of character work that precede that actual shooting. Narrative literally emerges from character. It’s never clearer than in his casting of the comedian Jane Horrocks in Life is Sweet, whose wizardly talent for vocal impressions brings her sketch comedy characters to three-dimensional life. She’s sort of a British Lily Tomlin – she can do the kind of shape-shifting work Tomlin did in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe – and in casting her in a dramatic role Leigh picks up on the connection Robert Altman did when he cast Tomlin in Nashville in 1975: that the greatest sketch comedy is short-form method acting. The point of Stanislavski’s Method was that a character isn’t something an actor wears like a costume over their true identity – character is what the actor becomes, tapping into their own memories and experience for a complete merging of life and art. When Horrocks plays a role, you feel like she’s undergoing demonic possession. Her performance as Nicola, a young woman who has lost her appetite for life (she’s come to believe life is out to consume her instead), shows comedy shredding itself into tragedy. She breaks your heart.

Shot by Leigh’s frequent collaborator Dick Pope, the images have a crisp brightness, as though bathed in a sunlit glow – the Blu-ray transfer gives them a stunning clarity. And Rachel Portman’s bittersweet score, faintly Parisian, evokes the unfulfilled desires of so many of the characters to seek out new tastes and experiences. Life is Sweet was made at the very end of Margaret Thatcher’s eleven-year tenure as Prime Minister, as David Sterritt points out in his booklet essay for this Criterion release, and three years after she declared that “there is no such thing as society,” only “individual men and women.” Ironically, it is the left-wing Nicola who occupies a reality in which human relation has become impossible. The richness of the film, with its generous view of the interdependency of social life, is a gentle rejoinder to her narcissism, as well as that of an era that enshrined family values while leaving individual families to starve. Leigh’s political views finally come by way of his modernist and humanist approach to realism: we are only nourished when we can accept to be fed by others and when we can feed them in turn.

Amanda Shubert is a PhD student in English at the University of Chicago. Previously, she held a curatorial fellowship at the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts, working with their collection of prints, drawings and photographs. She is a founding editor of the literary journal Full Stop.

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