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The enemy is within: "Life During Wartime"

September 15, 2009 |  2:10 pm

LifeDuringWartime2Story Personally speaking, the recent films of Todd Solondz make me feel dumb. It is always apparent that they have been deeply thought through, with a dense matrix of themes that form in some sense a code waiting to be cracked, And yet as much as I enjoy the challenge, they often remain teasingly out-of-reach. I know they are saying something, I am just not sure what.

"Life During Wartime," which had its North American premiere Monday night, is Solondz's most accessible film in years. In creating a sequel to 1998's "Happiness" but recasting all the roles, he has pulled off the feat of a film that stands on its own while also deriving a richer meaning from its references back to the older film. It's as if the new film exists entirely in quotation marks, and yet within that space still manages to make meaning of its own. The effect is remarkable, making the entire film hum with a high-tension energy.

Somehow the film's essential strangeness, its sense of things being not quite right, works to its advantage here more than in some of Solondz's other films. Ostensibly the story of three sisters -- one too selfish, one too selfless and the other looking for something stable to hold onto -- the film becomes a treatise on the nature of forgiveness, while always remaining attentive to the idea that, as one character says, "sometimes its better not to understand." Or, as Charlotte Rampling notes during her brief, startlingly hard-hearted appearance, "The enemy is within."

"Life During Wartime" picked up the screenwriting prize just days ago at the Venice Film Festival, and perhaps to heighten the enigma of the meaning behind his film, Solondz was not in attendance at the screening Monday due to a teaching assignment in Singapore. Onstage following the screening were producers Christine Walker and Elizabeth Redleaf and performers Ally Sheedy, Michael Lerner and Rich Pecci. Asked about Solondz's tactic of recasting the roles in the film, Sheedy responded, "It's really difficult to understand what Todd's thinking is ever."

For the record, the title of the film is not taken from the Talking Heads song of the same name, but rather there is a song in the film with music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Solondz with lines like "I made a mistake, just like Vietnam."

Photo: "Life During Wartime"
Credit: Toronto International Film Festival

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