Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Bleak Moments

Mike Leigh's films have always been concerned with how ordinary people live their lives. His intense, emotionally forceful dramas deal with the everyday incidents, the struggles and minor pleasures, that constitute the lives of the kind of utterly typical working class people who don't often appear in the cinema. This focus is apparent right from his very first feature, Bleak Moments, which lives up to its title with a series of snippets cut from the life of the secretary Sylvia (Anne Raitt). Sylvia takes care of her mentally handicapped sister Hilda (Sarah Stephenson), and the two sisters live a lonely and mostly isolated existence, Sylvia sitting alone, drinking glass after glass of sherry, this uneventful life only occasionally punctuated with awkward attempts at dating and companionship. Sylvia has a boyfriend, Peter (Eric Allan), a repressed and stuffy teacher whose interactions with Sylvia are strenuously polite, marked by long awkward silences and a complete absence of physical intimacy. In many ways, she seems more taken with the equally awkward but much warmer Norman (Mike Bradwell), a young and somewhat grungy guitarist who rents Sylvia's garage to print copies of the literary magazine he works for.

Norman entertains Hilda with his guitar playing and his goofy songs — mostly cleansed of the drug-obsessed lyrics that he sings when he's alone — and his conversations with Sylvia are tentative but strangely charming, two shy people hesitantly chatting and joking and learning about each other. In contrast, Peter is a joyless bore who Sylvia seems to cling to only because she has almost nobody else, because she's so desperate for some kind of connection in her life. The film's epic centerpiece is a very long sequence in which Sylvia invites Norman in to play guitar for Hilda, before being joined first by her abrasive co-worker Pat (Joolia Cappleman) and then by Peter, who's coming over for a date. The cozy pleasure of Norman playing guitar for Hilda and Sylvia — Leigh shoots the trio in an intimate arrangement that suggests a family — is soon disrupted by the arrival of these other people, and this impromptu party becomes a tense and painfully awkward affair. At one point, Leigh brilliantly cuts between closeups of all the people in Sylvia's living room, all of them silent, casting shy glances at one another, opening their mouths as if about to say something and then stopping, smiling nervously or clenching their teeth. This goes on for quite a while, and the rapid rhythm of this closeup montage accentuates the silence and the awkwardness. It's both maddening and, increasingly, bitingly hilarious.

This scene leads directly into an equally dismal date with Peter, as Pat takes Hilda over to her place for the night, while Peter and Sylvia go out for Chinese food. The couple obviously has nothing to talk about, and the grim atmosphere of this empty Chinese restaurant — the only other customer is a solitary man who stares sinisterly at the couple all night — only adds to the miserable mood. Peter argues with the abrupt, rude waiter, who seems to be in a hurry despite the empty restaurant, and who gets mad when they try to order by the name of the dish rather than the numbers on the menu. To top it all off, Peter reveals himself as cheap, ordering dishes for the two of them to split rather than letting Sylvia order her own food. Leigh's feel for subtle mise en scène reveals itself towards the end of this sequence, when, as the couple prepares to leave, the waiter stands in the background, shuffling through the meager change left behind as a tip and casting dirty looks at Peter.

This torturous date isn't over, though, and it continues back at Sylvia's place, where the halting conversation continues and Sylvia gets drunk on sherry, working up her courage to seduce the seemingly asexual Peter. His prim manners are memorably skewered in a subtly funny shot of him sitting down with a full cup of coffee, carefully balancing the liquid, pausing for a moment to let it steady, and then slowly crossing his legs. In contrast, Sylvia, though she's also shy and quiet, is much less repressed; she can be playful, and there's a hint of mischief in her frequent smiles. She's also lovely, and Leigh makes this a very sensual scene for Sylvia, her pale face floating in the darkness, her bare legs pulled up under her as she lounges on the couch, her posture an invitation for Peter to come sit next to her. Peter is oblivious, though, blathering on about Marshall McLuhan and language and design. Finally, in an extraordinary moment, Sylvia, flushed with sherry, tentatively tries to shame him into intimacy: "if we were able to... touch each other... it wouldn't be so bad."

Leigh's direction of this sequence is remarkable, drawing out the almost unbearable tension between Sylvia, yearning for any kind of intimacy she can get, and Peter, so stiff and repressed that he's all but incapable of responding. Leigh gets phenomenal performances from everyone in the cast, but especially Raitt, who infuses Sylvia with layers of churning emotions beneath her shy surface. Despite the film's title and the generally grim tone of it all, Raitt doesn't play Sylvia like a woman defeated. She's sweet and kind, and she cares for her sister with tenderness and genuine love. There's a playfulness to her that comes out especially with Norman and Hilda, the former in a delightful scene where she teases him by offering him a meager snack of five nuts, apparently all she has in the house for an unexpected guest. Later, as though to emphasize the difference between the two men in her life, she repeats the joke with Peter during their horrible date, but he simply stares at her blankly, uncomprehending. Also fascinating is the one scene where Peter and Norman actually talk to one another, and Peter unconsciously falls into his schoolmaster persona, questioning the young burnout and making disapproving sounds after every response. It's obvious that Peter is the kind of stern, out-of-touch teacher who doesn't understand young people in the least, which is confirmed by the scene towards the end of the film that shows him at school, telling a fellow teacher that third-grade kids have no sense of humor — which of course is pretty rich coming from him.

Leigh's feel for acting is already obvious in this first feature, which was adapted from his own stage play. These actors communicate so much through the nuances of their performances, the way they interact, the long and uncomfortable silences they leave hanging. But Leigh also already displays a keen cinematic imagination that's sometimes overlooked in the focus on his facility with actors and his realistic sensibility. His visuals are unshowy, but he has a strong grasp of cinematic space that especially plays out here in the way he uses the layout of Sylvia's home, with a kitchen connected to the parlor by a small square window. Sylvia is often framed through that window, separated from the people she's invited into her home, and at times she intentionally uses that distancing device to cut herself off from the infuriating Peter. Bleak Moments is a fine start to Leigh's career, a typically sensitive, humanist portrait of suffering and sadness that's as attuned to the subtle pleasures and small hopes of an ordinary life as it to the bleak moments of the title.


Sam Juliano said...

This is one of the few films made by Mike Leigh that I have not yet seen to this point. Yet, as you beautifully convey the feature has Leigh's trademark all over it: the nuances, the silences, the humanism, the improvosation. You evoke a tone here that is consistent through his work.

My favorite films by this British master are:

1. Vera Drake
2. Another Year
3. Life is Sweet
4. Secrets and Lies
5. Happy-Go-Lucky
6. Naked
7. High Hopes
9. Topsy Turvy
10. Career Girls

One of the three great contemporary living British directors with Ken Loach and Terrence Davies, and a card-carrying humanist with a melancholy slant.

You've more than piqued my interest here with this typically outstanding essay in consideration of a work I know few have seen.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Sam. This was definitely a great debut for Leigh. I still need to see a lot more of his work, but I like everything I've seen so far, and personally I'd place Naked at the very top of the list. He's a remarkably consistent director though.