Friday, March 12, 2021

Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988, Terence Davies)

Quest Status: 736 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #271

Usually, a film opens by introducing us to some characters. Then, the characters become part of a story, which envelops them until they emerge at the end, changed by the events that they, and we, have just experienced. Well, Terence Davies' Distant Voices, Still Lives doesn't adhere to these rules. It does introduce us to some characters, a working class family in postwar Britain, only it eschews the narrative part of the bargain. There is no story, and no conventional beginning, middle and end. There is no exposition, no easily digestible conflict, no clear sense of place and time. We don't even know very much about the characters. They could be anyone from their place and time--which is Britain from the early 1940s to the mid-1950s.

Nevertheless, the film does have a vague structure. It opens with the wedding of the family's oldest child, one of two sisters. The younger sister was brutally abused by the family's late father, as were her mother and brother. However, the older sister misses her father on her wedding night. The father looms like a specter over the entire film, with happy memories sprinkled among the painful ones. It's a tale as old as time. The father is moody and abusive, the mother is quiet and resilient, defending her husband to the very end--even when her body is covered in bruises.

Images like these flow steadily throughout the film's brief running time. There is no chronological order to the scenes that we see, but the film is divided into two halves--with two separate weddings providing a thread on which the other episodes loosely hang. The title is also split between the two halves--the first entitled Distant Voices and the second Still Lives. The first half is more ethereal and deeply entrenched in memories. The second half revisits the characters at a slightly later date, as the family's son prepares to get married. The father is less present in this section, and there is more emphasis on episodes from the characters' daily lives with their spouses.

However, one element remains a constant throughout both sections. This is the communal singing at the celebration following each wedding, which we drift in and out of between episodes. There are similar moments of spontaneous group singing after the father's funeral, and in a bomb shelter during an WWII air raid (the only time that the war is explicitly referenced in the film). Characters might break into song at any moment, with no accompaniment other than the voices of their friends and family. Music is what gets them through the endless flow of time, the sorrows of their lives, and helps them feel the joy that they crave.

Another constant are shots of light shining through windows, or facades of buildings where the characters live. These buildings are the vessels in which memories are stored. The windows are the portals to seeing them, to accessing that lost era which only comes back in small flashes, like drops of water from a faucet. Occasionally, characters sit motionless and stare at the camera, bringing to mind the uncanny magic of old photographs. These are all stylistic elements which seem to be unique to Davies' deeply personal debut film, all of them geared towards the poetic and the transcendent rather than linear narrative storytelling. Davies' collection of memories is vivid and evocative, but also difficult to penetrate, as we are always on the outside looking in--as if through a window to someone else's mind.

---264 films remaining---

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