Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

17 December 2014

Still Alice

Still Alice played in Los Angeles for only one week: an Academy-qualifying run in two theatres beginning on December 5th before it is released more widely on January 16th. So I had to drive rather far to see this movie, but I was glad I did. It is an excellent film and, perhaps more importantly for my timeline:

With Still Alice, Julianne Moore is finally going to win a Best Actress Oscar.

Still Alice also contains beautiful performances by Kristen Stewart and Alec Baldwin, but the star here is Alice herself, Julianne Moore. The performance is beautiful. She is terrified and angry and defiant, and then lost and confused. It is a sensitive, humane portrayal of someone fighting to stay herself from an actress who has done consistently good work since her big break in Robert Altman's Short Cuts in 1993. It's about time Julianne Moore had a Best Actress Oscar in her hands, and her performance in Still Alice is so good that everyone is going to feel happy about giving it to her.

This film is not Oscar bait, though. I had read in certain places on the interwebs that Still Alice is a) a star vehicle or b) Oscar bait. And it is neither of those things. Instead, it is a fascinating, beautiful movie about Alzheimer's disease that is complicated by its multiple perspectives.

As the film begins, we meet Alice, a professor at Columbia who has just turned 50. She's a leader in her field and she has begun, ever so slightly, to forget things. She describes these moments of forgetting as though something has just "dropped out" when it should be there. Still Alice plays close attention to these early moments of understanding Alice's condition. We see this from Alice's perspective, and as a very educated, independent woman she explores these moments at her own pace without telling her husband what is happening. Everything is from her point of view here. At her first visit to the neurologist the camera doesn't look at him a single time. We get only Alice's face as she answers his questions and processes what he's telling her.

We stay in Alice's perspective for a long, long time. And then, in act three, as we move forward and Alice begins forgetting a lot more, the film subtly but deliberately switches from Alice's point of view to her husband's, and we see Alice's condition not as her struggle to remember things or accomplish tasks but as his struggle to cope with her condition. (He doesn't cope very well.) And then, finally, we switch to Alice's daughter's perspective as she cares for and loves her mother, even when her mother seems as though she is totally unaware of her surroundings.

The filmic switch between Alice's perspective and her husband's is one of my favorite moments in the film. Alice's Alzheimer's has progressed quite far, and the film conveys this total lack of a past by focusing very tightly on the toppings at Pinkberry. And they're beautiful: a tight, focused shot of Fruity Pebbles and then another, similar shot of a different topping. This is all Alice can focus on: the present moment. So she looks at the prettiest thing in the room – mounds of brightly colored frozen yogurt toppings – and then she focuses on the next one. There is no past or future, there is only this beautiful image in front of her, and it is what she can take in. Directing team Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have made their best film to date. Highly recommended.