Still Life – Movie Review
Still Life – Movie Review
During the Día de Muertos celebrations in Mexico, I thought about a movie that I would like to recommend you. And no, it is not a scary movie; not a zombies movie; none of that. It is a British drama film that will delight those who like topics such as the meaning of life, introspection, death, loneliness, routine, family history, and hope.
What movie is that?
The movie is called Still Life (2013). Directed by Uberto Pasolini. As many know, still life refers to the art of painting or taking photography of motionless objects; but the movie is not about this type of art. It is a drama genre movie. So don’t expect a lot of action and special effects or any of those things. The acting of Eddie Marsen in this movie was genius. And of course it was, I later found out that he won the best actor award at the 2014 Edinburgh International Film Festival precisely for his performance in Still Life.
What is it about?
It is about John May (Eddie Marsan), a man who works in the office of a local council in London trying to find the relatives of those unclaimed deceased. John takes his job so seriously and with such devotion that he even walks the second mile to find their relatives and try to convince them to attend their funerals, which usually nobody accepts, reminding us in the first place why each deceased person died alone.
John lives a quiet and simple life. He himself is a lonely man. He doesn’t even know how to cook, and a tuna fish can with toasted bread would do it. Looking three times before crossing the street, not leaving his luggage on the shelve above him on the train, and avoiding trying new things portray him as an obsessively cautious man. His excessive formality in the way he deals with people and the exactness of placing objects in a precise place, tells you something more about his eccentricity. Besides that, John seems to lack several emotions. He doesn’t smile and he doesn’t show pain, or perhaps not until we look carefully in the depth of his eyes.
For John, his personal obligation is providing the best last farewell to those who have parted from this life. On his own initiative, he also chooses the coffin, writes the eulogy, organizes and attends the funerals, usually being the only one attending. However, for the government, the best option is to lower the costs and cremate all unclaimed deceased. So after more than 20 years of service, John is fired. He is allowed to work on his last case, a man who dies right on the other side of his window at home. This is the central case of the movie that will shake things a bit in the life of John. You will see him enjoying a cup of ice cream, throwing rocks to a lake, looking for a gift for someone alive, and finally smiling for the first time in the movie. John even undergoes a positive feeling that seems he hadn’t ever experienced before. It is near the end of the movie when John really begins to live. And watch closely that fantastic acting performance.
Why and how did I end up watching it?
Well, perhaps the summary doesn’t seem extremely interesting. Who wants to watch a movie about unclaimed deceased? Perhaps someone who has a similar job or works in the morgue? In fact, I’m not even sure how I ended up watching it. But the first scenes got my attention. In less than a minute and a half there are three funerals of three different religions and each with its respective music. In each ceremony we see no people except two: a priest and John. After that I got curious about the peculiarity of John and his actions; a meticulous man with a pretty established routine and, despite his seriousness, who has an empathy for those he tries to help.
The movie was also interesting to me because of the composition of several shots. There were symmetric shots, including pretty well placed objects; of course, very appropriate for the movie name. The places John goes are for the audience to look for those small details; an empty bed and a pillow engraved as if an invisible person were still lying there, pantyhose hanging on the window, a couch missing a leg and being supported by a pile of books, a jar of thick lotion with the trace of three fingers, and more. Many details that may look insignificant, but that can still say a lot. But nothing I have said so far is why I recommend the movie.
My best reason to watch this movie
Yes, the movie has a few slow parts. There are many shots of streets, rooms, ordinary and inanimate objects, and John walking or doing methodical routines. For some of us who love photography, we may like it, but for most of the audience these shots could be tedious. In fact at a certain point the mood sometimes could be nostalgic. So why do I recommend this movie? Because of the way it ends. The ending took me by surprise and it was touching. And don’t bother fast-forwarding the movie just to see the end. It wouldn’t be the same, it wouldn’t cause the same impact. You need to be fully immersed to the point in which you leave the real world and experience what you are watching. That’s when the end will really cause you a major impact. The ending is great for discussion. This movie can stir some good discussions and don’t be surprised that your opinion about the way this movie ends says a lot about you and your perception of life.
Some personal insights about this movie
Get a life
I don’t doubt many of us at some point of our lives have had most of our attention trapped at work, school, or other activities. Perhaps not to the point of having a life so structured and without discovering new things as John’s life, but whatever your life might be, you may not be taking enough time to find out new things and leave aside your comfort zone. While watching the movie, one could have empathy for John, who is trapped in his own little word, but have ever occurred to you that your own world is also pretty small compared with the huge number of things that you still have to discover? Take the time to change the route to get back home, try new dishes, meet new people, hear others’ ideas, go to a different place, learn other things, travel, and more. They don’t have to be drastic changes that may compromise the stability you are looking for or the uplifting and virtuous things of life you hold on. In reality very small things can make a huge difference. Everyone knows his or her limits of tolerance; the point is stretching a bit more that comfort zone. Think of your life journey, it is full of opportunities. The difficult part is realizing that we can become content when there is still a lot out there we don’t even have a clue of. Get from life as much as you can and try making a different story every day. Be like a child that is always discovering things, learn and experiment new things constantly.
In Still Life, John’s boss says funeral services are for the living and not so much for the dead. He tries to convince John that so much devotion for an unclaimed dead is vain and unfruitful. Some would agree with such statement, others wouldn’t. I ask you then, what do you think? Do you think funeral services are only for the living? Or is the deceased person getting some benefit from it? Do you do funerals just to follow a mere tradition? And if you believe that a funeral is for the living, in what sense? Comfort? To honor the name of the deceased? To fulfill the moral commitment of making the last wish of the dead person happen? To look good before the society? Or if you believe there is life beyond the grave and the funeral is also for the dead, in which sense? These may be really weird and/or pathetic questions if you want, at least at this point of your life, but as a matter of fact, these questions help you to get to know you better and find the sense and meaning to the things you do. So, what’s your opinion?
London has almost eight and a half million inhabitants  and someone may say, feeling alone in a large city would be impossible, but the reality is different. Paradoxically, in London and any other big city is where one is more exposed to loneliness. In a big city is easier to become one more number in the street. New neighbors come and go, stores and businesses change all the time, employees are temporal, pedestrians can be different every day, and that’s how someone could end up isolated and confined in work and residence. Loneliness is not necessarily being alone, but lacking connection with others. It is lack of company in life. Each person needs some degree of social life. It is possible to be alone by preference without feeling lonely. And on the other hand, it is also possible to be surrounded by people and feel loneliness because not being able to connect with anyone.
In Still Life, every day John would come back to an empty home. He would take some time to feed his photograph album with the picture of each unclaimed dead. The lack of expression in John doesn’t show any emotional pain; it is left to the audience to interpret how much loneliness affected him or not. That was a good approach from the director. That way it is possible to avoid the audience to get into an easy, and then exhausting, empathy or pity for John. That would make the movie extremely depressing. The audience is supposed to figure it out. Observe the life of John and see if at any point you can relate to him or if you feel something about his way of life.
John is pretty observant and sensitive to things. When he arrives at the house of the deceased, he observes with some detail some the objects, looking for clues so he can try to get a picture of the type of person the deceased was. John would write the eulogies of these people based on those discoveries he made through letters, books, music, and other objects found at home, as well as interviewing possible acquaintances. Those who work on family history understand how valuable those objects people leave behind are. Objects may be completely useless for us, but in fact they could have been really meaningful to the owner, or at least they can provide important information about the person. Those belongings left behind talk about people’s personality, taste, profession, habits, challenges, motivations, experience, and a lot more. Those objects help build and discover lives. We don’t understand it until we have dug deep enough in the research of someone who has departed. Today the clothes we wear, our furniture, our personal hygiene articles, the food in our cabinets, paintings and pictures on the wall, books, and, in short, all our belongings in general are the daily witnesses of the true person we are. So, in a way, “tell me what you have and I’ll tell you who you are” makes some sense. Pay attention to the talk John prepared for Jane Ford, the cat’s owner. That’s a pretty good example of how the objects she left behind were used and how John looked at the positive side in people.
Hope (SPOILERS ahead!!! Don’t read this if you haven’t seen the movie)
Don’t read this if you haven’t seen the movie and want to watch it. The ending won’t be the same if you read this before watching it. Finally, John’s work takes him to a successful outcome in his last case, Billy Stoke’s case. This time he is able to gather several people at the funeral. Not just that, John meets Kelly Stoke (Joanne Froggatt), Billy’s daughter whose life is also affected by abandonment and loneliness. Kelly and John find some pleasure with each other’s company. A spark of hope comes in during the film when both decided to go out for a drink after Billy’s funeral.
The funeral is just a few days away and one can perceive certain excitement in John. The audience may think that John and Kelly will end up together in a classic and easily predictable ending, but they don’t. John, despite being so cautious in many things such as looking at the street on both sides three times before crossing it, is hit by a car. John dies and in his funeral, oddly enough the same day of Billy Stoke’s funeral, there isn’t anyone attending. The priest is the only one present in the ritual, but he just skips the liturgies; there isn’t an eulogy for John; there isn’t anyone looking for clues about John’s life; there isn’t anyone trying to reach his family or relatives. And even when someone jokingly had said to him, while still alive, that whenever the day came, John would be buried in the shade under a tree, it happened that he was buried next to a cut trunk of a thin tree. There wasn’t a tree, there wasn’t a headstone, there weren’t visitors, there wasn’t anyone.
Right there, a few steps away and at the same hour, Kelly Stoke is attending the burial of her father. Kelly not knowing what had happened to John, looks around wondering where he would be. The two men that buried John take their shovels and walk indifferently talking about other things. Kelly talks briefly with some of the funeral guests and starts walking with some of them towards a trail. She stops for a brief instant and turns her head towards the place John lays, but no, there isn’t any way to find out about John’s death; not even the slightest clue about it. Kelly just walks away and leaves.
The last shot shows John’s burial place in the center of the frame and some trees far in the background. And here is the interesting part, right when everything seems to end like that, unexpectedly and with some background music, people’s figures appear one by one walking respectfully and solemnly towards John’s place. These are the spirits of those deceased ones that John helped arranging their funerals. Billy Stoke, Jane Ford, the woman of the pink hat, the military man, the Jew, and dozens of other spirits filling up the last shot. They all gather around John to pay him respect or to receive him if you want to see it that way. And that’s when the movie ends.
I also recommend you reading my post: The Lunchbox a critique and review.
The ending could promote some debate. Some would feel sad because John died and he wasn’t able to get the girl. But in reality, those last days in the life of John were the best lived days in the movie. He was able to enjoy new things and was able to successfully close his last case. But more than that, he was able to harvest the fruit of what he had sowed for 22 years he was working. John is not forgotten for those souls he honored them in their funerals. John would treasure those people as if they were his own deceased people. He had a picture of all of them in his album.
Yes, he didn’t get the girl, but in this story he wouldn’t be alone anymore. Certainly the movie didn’t give much romance in John’s life, but you can continue the story and think that he would certainly have that opportunity afterlife. That’s up to you to think it that way. And at least John got the highest attended funeral and his reception was moving; a stark contrast of all what we see during the entire film.
And adopting that narrative, what about you? How do you think you would be received or welcomed on the other side of the veil? How would your visit to the spirit world be like? How many lives have you touched in life or death at the end of your journey in this life? Or do you even believe in life after death?
I would love to hear your opinion. Share it in the comments section below. If you don’t see the comments section, reload the page 🙂
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Still Life Movie Poster. Digital image. IMDB. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. <http://ia.media-imdb.com/images/M/MV5BMjIyMzI1ODU5MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTIyMTI2MzE@._V1_SX214_AL_.jpg>.
1. “Population and Migration.” The Neighbourhood Statistics. Office for National Statitstics, n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. <http://www.neighbourhood.statistics.gov.uk/HTMLDocs/dvc134_a/index.html>.