Dir.: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland
My greatest fear is loosing my eyesight.My father lost an eye a few years back to retina detachment.I am myself quite myopic and consider spectacles to be one of mans greatest inventions.I often think of the millions who must have lived with near blindness because something as simple as a pair of spectacles had not yet been invented.The thought that I may not be able to see all the beautiful things in the world, including cinema of course, is terrifying.In Still Alice we get a vivid portrait of a brilliant linguistics professor whose life falls apart as a rare case of early onset of Alzheimer’s coils its tentacles around her and crushes her spirit.Films like this invoke a real horror and are a testament to the power of cinema to bring us very close to very difficult life experiences.
“Old age ain’t no place for sissies”, Bettie Davis once said.Even if you know that and think that you are physically and mentally fit and agile, as Alice Hawland (Julianne Moore) clearly is, what if the cruellest aspects of old age arrive early and broadside you? How would it feel to do the recce of a home for dementia patients where everybody is about the age of your parents, but you are considering moving in yourself? And how would you deal with the fact the very faculties which were your strength have turned your enemies, not to mention a source of severe embarrassment? These are not easy questions but Still Alice navigates the territory with great tact and sensitivity.
Alice and John( Alec Baldwin) are typical baby boomers and a true embodiment of the positive outlook of that American generation.They are both very successful professionals, live in a posh apartment on the Upper West Side and also own a charming beach house. Alice is an authority on linguistics and her book on the subject is considered a seminal text.As the film opens we see the family assemble for her fiftieth birthday.Their life appears to be nearly perfect.The biggest challenge she faces is the fact that her youngest daughter Lydia(Kirsten Stewart) is a struggling actress but refuses to go to collage, despite having the opportunity on a platter.Everything is nearly perfect till fragments of this charmed life start to fade from Alice’s memory.
After the Alzheimer’s diagnosis is confirmed beyond doubt, Alice fights her deteriorating brain function with the best tricks that that very brain can think up, she is after all an expert on language and cognitive sciences.But it is a battle she cannot win, the disease is relentless and ruthless.There are not going to be any miracles on this journey.She tells her husband, “I wish it was cancer”. Julianne Moore delivers that line with perfection and gives a performance that is a touching mixture of fragility and stubbornness and above all an internal struggle to maintain her dignity when everyone including your own family will judge you, despite your condition.
Still Alice is tricky territory and everything hinges on the authenticity of what we see on screen.The film works because the directors are somehow able to make the audience travel with its protagonist on her regressive inward journey.The film takes a risk by developing only Alice’s character at the expanse of all others and instead of watching a whole family struggle with the disease we firmly stay with Alice.Even her relationship with her husband is not fully explored.He is not emotionally ready to be as strong the situation demands, and the film wisely lets him be.
While watching this film I constantly thought of Amour, Michael Haneke’s masterpiece about an old French couple who also deal with a similar problem but at a much more advanced age.In Amour the ruthless pain of a womans mind and body falling apart is felt through the husband whose love for his wife is as pure as that of mothers for her child.But in Still Alice we experience Alzheimer’s in the first person.This film does not take the chances that Amour does, it does not push hard enough into the pain.Ultimately Still Alice is a vey moving film,and very mindful of its social and cultural context.
The directors have a personal connection with this material, they are partners and Richard Glazier suffers from ALS which is a degenerative neurological disorder. I saw this film in an auditorium dominated by elderly people.As the curtains went down I felt the stillness and dread in the room.And perhaps there was relief too.What is an eschemic heart compared to a beautiful mind in rapid premature atrophy?Maybe Alice is right, cancer is better.