Distant Voices, Still Lives

Distant Voices, Still Lives ★★★★★

Cinematic perfection. This movie leaves me awestruck every time I see it, and fills me with such uncompromised emotion, it’s really hard to talk about. From the first time I saw this and The Long Day Closes, I knew Davies and I were going to be friends. Those two films, plus his trilogy of shorts, are all intrinsically important to one another, being that, they’re all personal journeys into the filmic world, probing the endless possibilities that is memory, specifically, his own. The only film I’d compare this to is Tarkovsky’s Mirror, and even that seems tenuous. This is a lot more warm, inviting, and directly emotional, with a followable plot, but one that creates a beautiful mosaic, rather than a standard narrative. Songs are sung, rituals are upheld, memories are shared, hits are thrown, bombs are dropped, and life goes on.

I’ve never seen memory handled so delicately and perfectly as it is here. It presents itself like a web, spreading out every which way, and yet, it effortlessly maintains all it’s connections. In each half there is a distinct “present day” scenario happening (actually the first half has two), and from there, every fragmented moment, or tangent, stems from some form of association from one of our characters in this family. Things may not seem directly correlated, but emotionally it’s perfectly logical. Davies captures the essence of the unconscious mind, not subconscious, and that’s a large difference, especially since most common to our zeigeist is the exploration of the later. When you suddenly remember something that happened as a child, or when a song pops in your head, or when you suddenly get a feeling in your chest because something is familiar but you can’t quite place it tangibly; these are the concepts at play here. Furthermore, there’s a crucial piece of information that I think Tarkovsky so plainly presents in Mirror via the voice-over, that Davies hopes you grasp here (and yet it doesn’t really matter if you do or not); that he is the narrator. It might as well be a first person film, stemming directly from Davies mind. He calls this an autobiographical film, but he was 7 (I believe) when his father died, and he had more than 2 siblings. So right off the bat, everything isn’t literal, but you can feel the truth weaved into the DNA of the film, typically inside the details, which don’t feel manufactured, but authentic. This is the most crucial factor to me.

The film being split into the two halves is just astoundingly brilliant. Distant Voices is reckoning the past, trying to cope with the idea of hating someone for most of your life, only to still feel inherently upset when they’re gone, and the impact they had on you, and those you love, and will continue to do so forever. Transitioning from adolescence into adulthood, whilst trying to figure out who you are, and what you’ll do. It’s melodramatic, it’s painfully real, it’s decidedly false. Everything is explored, spanning 20+ years of family history, and nothing is off the table. It’s also an exploratory time for the country, and the evolution of the working class happening so casually in a post war world, you might not even notice. Still Lives is when you become the adult, and everything is different, and more stagnant. New stories are made less and less, and yet you find yourself in the same place, with the same people, doing similar things. It’s decidedly slower, being the first half’s main crux is the story of the Father, but I think it’s brilliantly juxtaposed as a whole, to be a lot more calm, and in a way, all about the Mother. One inherently focused on the past, one on the present/future. One glistening in the dour side of melancholy, and one relishing in the contentment of it.

Davies communicates all of this through just sublimely gorgeous imagery, that’s almost a non-stop barrage, but in the best way. The camera is often static, or gliding mechanically, to showcase perfectly composed frames of people, often just looking, or singing. The colors are beautifully arranged, and the lighting is so radiant in its overblown mysticism. It’s a throwback to films of old, and it’s nothing short of heavenly. I feel genuinely transported to another time, through the visage of other human beings, who also seem like they’re being transported, while performing this personal facade. It easily could have been pretentious and self-indulgent, but there’s so much truth, pain, and necessity, telegraphed into every single frame, with such genuine care, it’s anything but those superlatives.

Fantastic, mesmerizing, and one of my biggest inspirations; this will always be a Top 10 Film for me, and one I’ll easily be able to return to for the rest of my life. I need to checkout more Davies. Neon Bible left a sour taste in my mouth, and the 45 minutes I saw of House of Mirth didn’t grab me at all. But I know there’s more greatness to be found. Such an undervalued talent.

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