Still Life, dramedy, not rated, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3.5 chiles
John May is an unassuming man who lives in a modest flat in a London apartment building, where he eats potted meat with plain toast for dinner every evening and devotes his nights to scrapbooking. He’s fastidious in his habits and unerringly polite, always looks both ways before crossing the street, and duly waits for the “walk” signal even when there’s no traffic. He has no family and no real friends. His life is not something to be envied.
By day May (Eddie Marsan) works for the local council in south London, attempting to locate family members of the recently dead. When none can be found, he arranges private funerals for them, which he attends himself, scattering their cremated remains at the cemetery. He even writes eulogies based on what he can find out about them through their personal effects, going far beyond his duties as a clerk. May is efficient but slow at his work. He has a backlog of cases, and his costly funerals for the unknown and unwanted eventually result in his dismissal. His agency would rather dispose of remains quickly, dumping ashes en masse without reverence for the people they previously were. May is given three days to close out his last case, that of a veteran named Billy Stoke, who resided in the apartment complex where May lives.
May’s scrapbook is filled with pictures of the forgotten dead, all those cases for which he could not locate any next of kin. At the end of the day he scrawls “case closed” across their files with mournful regret. He does them honor in remembering them when no one else does. At night, he looks through the faces in the scrapbook as if they were members of his own family or snapshots from his own life. He feels empathy for these people, whose quiet, stark lives mirror his own. When he begins investigating the case of Stoke, an irascible man who alienated most of his loved ones, he seems hard-pressed to find anyone willing to attend the funeral. After much effort, he does track down a former co-worker, a former lover, an army buddy, and a daughter. But because Stoke had been absent from their lives for so long, they have no compelling reason to attend the funeral May has arranged. They have little good to say about Stoke, as May soon discovers, but that doesn’t stop him from seeking to redeem the man’s memory. One might think such a heroic undertaking as May’s would result in some kind of payoff — and there is one — but the film doesn’t deliver quite as expected.
The humor in Still Life is deadpan and understated. Just listen to the priest read the eulogy May prepared for one recently deceased woman. She was a stranger, too, but the priest begins by talking about the joy her parents must have felt when she was born — all speculation. Then he talks about her cat and her costume jewelry — items recovered during inventory — because that’s all he has to go on. Director Uberto Pasolini, producer of 1997’s The Full Monty, provides running sight gags that gain their full effect as the film transitions from one scene to the next. Notice the contrast between one woman’s neat and tidy rack of underwear and a similar shot in the next scene of a man’s dirty briefs left drying on the radiator. At one point, a blind aging veteran, an old friend of Stoke’s, offers to fix May some lunch and, by pure coincidence, prepares him some potted meat and plain toast. The fact that May almost never speaks to Stoke’s former friends without leaving with some kind of food item in hand also provides some laughs. Little niceties drop on him like blessings from above. They are small gifts in comparison to what he gives others, but when he’s thanked for his thoughtfulness, he merely replies, “It’s just my job.” The truth is, it isn’t just his job. It is his life and his passion.
Still Life is a fresh and satisfying film about a man who has devoted himself to the memories of total strangers. It’s an affecting story with an admirably nuanced lead performance full of heart and soul. Marsan invests his character with compassion and concern. It’s satisfying to see May break his routine and change from a man of fixed habits to one who takes chances, even if they are only small ones. He isn’t someone who smiles often, but when he does smile for the first time, late in the film, you’ll smile, too. When he smiles for the second time, it’s because of the irony of a regrettable situation, but it’s touching that he actually sees the humor in it.
Still Life’s payoff is in its final shot, when the fate of one man is elevated from something to be pitied to something to be celebrated, and it provides some comforting thoughts about the destiny we all share.
May’s book of days: Eddie Marsan