Great films: Distant Voices, Still Lives (Terence Davies, 1988, UK)

In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, the protagonist Billy Pilgrim is introduced to an alien race called the Tralfamadorians, who are able to see in four dimensions, the fourth being time. Consequently, they are able to see time not as a linear progression but, as the novel puts it, like a mountain range, with all of its peaks and troughs eternally visible to them. As non-Tralfamadorians, we of course are limited to exist in the present, but viewing the past through the lens of memory never produces linearity – memories of one moment will often trigger others from an entirely different time, united perhaps by location or something as simple as smell or taste.

Terence Davies’ enduring classic Distant Voices, Still Lives is a poetic, visually sumptuous attempt to present the nature of memory in a cinematic terms. A portrait of his own life growing up in 1940s and 1950s Liverpool, it is at least in part a Truffautian examination of individual experience a la The 400 Blows (1959), but the film’s insistence on capturing a mood above straightforward narrative places it more alongside Federico Fellini’s Roma (1972) and Amarcord (1973) as an impressionistic portrait of a time and a place.

The film is separated into a two parts. The first, Distant Voices, introduces us to the central family, and looks at the influence the domineering and violent patriarch has on its members; the second, set some years later, looks at the same family after the father’s death, slowly emerging from the post-war years towards the prosperity and liberalism of the 1960s. By dint of its structure, the first segment feels episodic, and it sometimes feels like we are looking at a photograph album, flicking back and forth through the leaves. Indeed, the formal composition of the film’s many group shots are very much akin to family portraits, and much of the diegesis centres on times when such photos would be taken: christenings, funerals, weddings, the rituals of Catholic Liverpool.

Films about childhood or adolescence often fall into over-sentimentality, and there are certainly moments of directorial reminiscence here: a wonderful moment where we witness the mother of the family washing the outside of a first floor window, perched perilously on the window ledge, with the children watching on, half in awe but half in fear that she may fall. Like its cinematic forefather The 400 Blows, though, the film does not gloss over the pain, both emotional and at times very physical, experienced when growing up. Though we are spared graphic displays of the father’s brutal beatings of his wilt and children, We are left in no doubt of their severity: one particularly savage attack in the hallway of the house is especially hard to watch, more so for what you are not seeing than actually seeing.

If the first half is physically traumatic. then the second half, Still Lives, is more melancholy. The patriarch gone, the family would seem to be free of its tormentor; but now the girls have married off to equally dislikeable husbands, and the mother is left alone in a large empty house. Britain is emerging into a new age, of prosperity, libertarianism and prosperity, yet this family seems unable to let go of its past.

While Davies’ film has this plane of personal experience, what makes it a true triumph is its depiction of a Liverpool, and an England, now long gone. I cannot think of another recent British film which has so vividly portrayed just how much the past is another country: the England of Round the Horne and shipping forecasts, of singsongs down the pub, and where a bottle of Chanel No. 5 is an exotic foreign luxury and not just another high-street product. Visually, we have a treasure trove of mises-en-scene, allowing the frame to linger on such period details as large fireplace or as insignificant as a light switch, or for us to marvel at the wonderful dresses young ladies would wear to go dancing in: an obvious subject of the director’s fascination. Such levels of detail give a sense of authenticity, though the soft, warm palette reminds us this is artifice, not realism.

Terence Davies is now something of a pariah, struggling to get his films made from outside of the British film establishment. What a shame that such a true auteur, so seldom seen on these shores, is unable to get funding, and who knows what body of work we as cinema-goers have been denied. Still, we have been granted this, a most poetic, beautiful melancholy masterpiece.

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