#5-9 top Grief on Film: Ordinary People, Door in the Floor, Sweet Hereafter, Big Chill

Here are numbers 5 through 9 of my top ten Grief on Film list, originally published at http://www.opentohope.com 

5.) Ordinary People

       Based on the moving novel by Judith Guest, Ordinary People tells the heartbreaking, intensely real story of a seemingly happy upper class couple who have lost the older of their two sons in a boating accident. Grief is subterranean here, as it often is, and is complicated by long-standing familial dysfunction; these people cannot speak openly of their pain. Timothy Hutton plays the surviving teenage son, Conrad, who blames himself for his brother’s death and has attempted suicide. Mary Tyler More is extraordinary as the repressed mother, Beth, who always preferred Conrad’s brother and can’t support Conrad. And Donald Sutherland is deeply believable as the father, Calvin, trying to hold the family together. Only when Conrad begins to see a psychiatrist, played by Judd Hirsch, does the family’s carefully cultivated veneer of coping begin to crack. Ordinary People is an admirable and honest examination of how pretense yields to grief, and the complex and difficult emotions experienced by grief’s survivors.

6) The Door in the Floor

      This 2004 film is another that honestly examines a marriage breaking apart after child loss. Adapted from the first (and best) part of John Irving’s best-selling novel “A Widow for One Year,” the film is set in the affluent beach community of East Hampton, New York and takes place during one critical summer in the lives of famous children’s book author and artist Ted Cole, played by one of my all time favorite actors, Jeff Bridges, and his beautiful wife Marion, played quite effectively by Kim Basinger. The Cole’s once-sweet marriage has curdled in the aftermath of the tragedy of losing their twin teenage sons in a car accident, and their attempt to fill the void with a new child, now six-year-old Ruth, has been disastrous. Marion remains despondent and unable to mother the new child, and Ted has become a philandering alcoholic. Eddie O’Hare, a young man Ted hires to work as his summer assistant, becomes the couple’s pawn in the destructive game that has developed between them. I found this film deeply moving and devastating as a kind of cautionary tale, for its portrayal of the destructiveness that can occur in two people with no resources to cope with a tragedy of unbearable proportions. It’s hard to sympathize with these two, but I recognize in them the narcissism and self-absorption of grief, and when Marion takes all the photographs and negatives of their dead sons, I wept like a baby.

7) The Sweet Hereafter

      This somber, difficult film directed by Atom Egoyan, based on the 1991 novel by Russell Banks, is set in a small town in the aftermath of a school bus accident that has killed most of the town’s children.  Into this devastating scene descends a slick, big city, ambulance-chasing lawyer, played by Ian Holmes. He is a man pursued by the demons of losing his own daughter to drugs, and he visits each of the victims’ parents to stir up their anger and coax them to participa te in a class action lawsuit to profit from the tragedy. The case depends on the few surviving witnesses to say the right things in court, particularly Nicole, played by Sarah Polley (whose recent film Away from Her nearly made this list), who was sitting at the front of the bus and is now paralyzed. She accuses the driver of causing the accident, and all hope of receiving money vanishes. Everyone knows she’s lying, but only her father knows she is exacting revenge on him for having molested her.  With great performances against a bleak, somber landscape, the film isn’t for the faint of heart, but does a great job of depicting how grief searches for restitution, but can never really find it.

8) Under the Sand

     Francois Ozon’s “haunting” film Under the Sand stars the courageous British actress Charlotte Rampling, playing Marie, a professor of English Literature in a Paris university, happily married to Jean for twenty-five years.  When Jean disappears one day while the couple is sunbathing during their south of France vacation, Marie doesn’t know what happened to him, whether he left her for another woman, committed suicide, or drowned.  Unable to accept that he is gone, she still talks and thinks of him in the present tense. This beautiful, sad, languid film, in French with subtitles, makes artistic use of film language, camera angles, mirror doubles, and unforgettable ocean images, to help us understand Marie’s inner thoughts and feelings and depict the psychologically traumatizing effect of grief.  In its brutally honest portrayal of a woman confronting her identity, age, body, sexuality, emotions, and even her intellect, Under the Sand shows how grief forces total reexamination of the soul and spreads its tentacles into every aspect of a person’s life.

9.) The Big Chill

       Okay, so this 1983 film directed by Lawrence Kasdan is a quirky departure in the list of sober and difficult dramas I’ve compiled. Some may object to its inclusion over other more serious films, such as Polley’s Away from Her, Mark Foster’s Monster’s Ball, plus Reservation Road, Grace is Gone, Iris, Things We Lost in the Fire, One True Thing, Terms of Endearment, Iris, Night Mother and many more. I include it not only because it is one of my favorite films of all time, groundbreaking in its use of an ensemble cast, musical score, and many other ways, but mainly because it is that rare comedy that deals realistically with grief.  With a terrific cast including Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, William Hurt, Meg Tilly, and Jeff Goldblum, The Big Chill tells of a group of thirty-something former college friends who come together for a weekend of reconciliation and reflection after the shocking death of one of their own, Alex (Kevin Costner, in a role cut in the final take), who committed suicide in the home of physician Sarah and business executive Harold, where the weekend takes place. Alex had been living there with his young girlfriend, Chloë, while trying to figure out what to do with his life. Powerfully demonstrating the ripple effect of suicide on the survivors, the group turns to each other to try and figure out why Alex ended his life and explore what happened to the ideals of their youth.  Yes, the film doesn’t deal with “high grief” such as that with comes with the loss of a child, parent, or sibling, but The Big Chill beautifully demonstrates that friendship and humor can be healing, and the scene of Sarah crying alone in the shower, within the context of the rest of the film, is a potent reminder of the loneliness of grief.  

 

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