Still Life

Pasatiempo - - News - — Michael Abatemarco

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

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