More so than outright joy or humility or happiness, grief is the most identifiable emotion captured in film. It’s the most dramatic, naturally, and it lends itself to so many avenues of representation.
In Peter Weir’s Fearless (1993), the lead character played by Jeff Bridges, chooses to sublimate his grieving process by making himself believe he’s superhuman and untouchable after surviving a plane crash. Call it post traumatic stress disorder with a bit of a God complex thrown in for good measure.
In Yorgis Lanthimos’ Alps (2011), grief takes a surreal segue when left behind widows and family members pay other people to impersonate their recently deceased loved ones. Call it blind immobility to reality.
And in one of my favorite TV shows, Denis Leary’s Rescue Me (2004-2011), grief and guilt become a nagging — and sometimes comedic — omnipresent specter that not only haunts and taunts Leary, but provides ample proof of the gaping hole left in our psyche after the September 11th terror attacks. Call it a grief symphony.
In Piero Messina’s The Wait, grief is a prolonged and quiet lie that resonates through a largely vacant Italian household for several days. Set mostly at night, or inside the decadently minimalist interiors of the house, The Wait certainly comes off as a dour and pressing affair, but the carefully observed dynamics between star Juliette Binoche and her unsuspecting guest Jeanne (Lou de Laage) slowly create a nuanced and gentle examination of the numbness felt immediately after sudden loss. In Messina’s view, one can simply call it denying the inevitable.
With a sweeping eye for haunting images and purposefully holding back pertinent information, The Wait opens with flashes of a funeral and the wonderfully etched face of Anna, played by Juliette Binoche, in a touching and primal performance. Cut to a young and pretty girl, Jeanne, arriving at the airport, lost in her synth pop soundtrack headset and walking out of the sunshine into what will become a shrouded environment of silence, hidden explanations and carefully designed falsehoods.
Jeanne arrives at the home of Anna in the midst of the wake. The expression on Binoche’s face –which essentially become the central motif of the film as she processes varied emotions — tells us that Jeanne’s presence and her relationship with her son Guiseppe are both surprises. Anna tells Jeanne that it’s her brother who has died and her boyfriend, Guiseppe, will be home soon.
It’s here Messina’s film gains the obvious title. As Jeanne waits for Guiseppe to return home, we hear snippets of cell phone voice messages that punctuate the tenuous but growing relationship between the young couple. She wonders why he won’t pick up or tells him that his mother is acting odd. There are references to stutters and stops in their relationship and her longing to be with him again. As the days go on, Jeanne and Anna develop an increasingly unbalanced relationship. Like the best dramas of Ingmar Bergman, its what’s left unsaid that speaks volumes between them and both actresses are more than able to shoulder the passages of silence.
I’ve made The Wait seem to be all about one thing. Sadness. It is and it isn’t. What makes the film an impressive debut achievement are the glimmers of humanity and life that often pierce the melancholy atmosphere. In one wonderful series of scenes, Jeanne spends her days at a large lake near the villa, swimming and being picked up on by two boys on a small raft. They end up at the villa for dinner with Anna and Jeanne, where normalcy and youthful vigor dare to interrupt the otherwise sad pallor. Jeanne flirts with one of the boys (Domenico Diele) and dances carefree with the second (Antonio Folleto).
In another, Anna muses to herself some intensely personal thoughts about her son and Jeanne living a different life together. Ringing from the mind of someone who can’t quite bring truthful words out into the open, it’s an astonishingly real moment.
In a film full of stoic religious imagery, painted with careful strokes of Old World set design and audible dialogue that quite rarely rises above respectful whispers, The Wait has a lot to say about the spectrum of these two women. One of them will have to face life head-on with her sense of youthful innocence shattered and the other will have the task of carrying on a parent’s worst nightmare. That both of them were together, even for a short while, during the hardest time may lessen the blow. The Wait suggests that and so much more. After all, grief is dramatic and prevalent in cinema, but it still hurts like hell every time when it’s done right.
The Wait opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area for a limited engagement at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth on Friday, June 24.