In Love with Loss

By Walker, Alexander | The Evening Standard (London, England), March 7, 2003 | Go to article overview

In Love with Loss


Walker, Alexander, The Evening Standard (London, England)


Byline: ALEXANDER WALKER

A Love Story remake is the latest in a spate of movies that focus on grief.

Is it a sign of our times?

A FRIEND in America called me the other day: she was shocked. High school kids had been asked to vote for their favourite first line in literature. "Do you know what won?"

she exploded. Jane Austen, I hazarded: "It is a truth universally acknowledged ..." that one. Wrong. It was, "What can you say about a girl you loved, and she died?" from Erich Segal's Love Story, never out of print, now coming back as a remake of the Ryan O'Neal/Ali MacGraw box-office hit of 1970.

It can't be the film that has kept such a line fresh: often shown on TV, it has never enjoyed a big-screen reissue. It must be the story's main ingredient that still makes it a "must" for teenage readers. And the ingredient is not the eponymous word "love", but the sub-textual appeal of "grief ".

It figures. Look closely at the stories attracting filmmakers at the moment; the current Hollywood shibboleths of "upbeat", or " feelgood" or "happy ending" just don't apply to the box-office demographics. Before youth audiences get off on "sex 'n' violence", the box-office's perennial staple, and after they have grown out of those kicks, they want to be moved. And something in the current zeitgeist says grief does it more reliably than love.

Grief comes in all forms, sizes and languages, just now. The Hours is about women grieving for the incompleteness of their lives and its final embrace is with death, not love. Iris, about the lapse of Iris Murdoch into senility, was about literary bereavement - the loss of a gifted mind.

Coming later this year will be Ted and Sylvia, another pairing of marital and literary loss in the story of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. But tragedy, and the grief it engenders when it strikes at unique talents, isn't confined to this kind of highclass biopic.

The prominence of grief in recent movies is a populist phenomenon, too. In the Bedroom turned a family's grieving over a murdered son into an act of vengeance on his killer. Moonlight Mile turned grief for a murdered daughter into a cathartic comedy - or, at least, tried to. Love Liza, featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman as a widower, showed how bereavement, if dwelt on, can mutate into something more sinister.

The book and the film of Graham Swift's Last Orders began with drinks and ended with funeral libations: grief pulled together old friends. Perhaps Nanni Moretti's The Son's Room struck the most resonant note of all: sudden grief sundering at random the happiest of families.

Not all these movies are successful at handling the dramatic obsequies of emotional loss. But something is definitely stirring in the world when a diversity of filmmakers independently produce work reflecting the most commonplace of events, yet also the most unique. It was not like that, say, a decade ago. I know to my cost. …

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