Still Alice (2014)

stillalice

I do not recommend that you watch this. It is well-crafted, but the message is one of nihilism. We are exposed to a character afflicted by a debilitating disease, and we are expected to literally watch her die.

But there is one redeeming element, which leads me to believe there was a subtle counter-force in the making of this overall ultimately self-defeating story. Kristen Stewart plays a struggling theatre actress, and delivers two unforgettable monologues, not original unfortunately, but taken from other, more successful plays.

(Also, her sexually ambiguous performance full of unspoken tension stands out from the overtly cliched family roles everyone is playing.)

Kristen Stewart as Lydia Howland, teaches her spiritually bankrupt family about faith-based living.

Kristen Stewart as Lydia Howland, teaches her spiritually bankrupt family about faith-based living.

There are two competing world views in this story. I’d like to focus on the uplifting one, as channeled through Kristen Stewart’s character. As a struggling theatre actress, she is drawn to community theatre, where she is paid nothing, therefore has difficulty validating her choices to her money-hungry family of superficial overachievers (her sister is an opportunistic lawyer, her father is a corporate scientist, and her brother is an emergency-room doctor in training). Yet, in her benevolence, she remains close to them, and subtly preaches a worldview that is more spiritual and essentially life-sustaining.

Blink, and you might miss the real message, overshadowed by the sensationalist performance of Oscar-baiter Moore. Everyone else is clueless (except a brief, yet illuminating appearance by uncredited actress Erin Darke, who acts befuddled by Moore’s forced nonchalance). But Stewart’s sincerity is disarming. Her first crucial monologue is taken from Chekov’s play Three Sisters, and it goes like this:

A time will come when everyone will know what all this is for, why there is this misery; there will be no mysteries and, meanwhile, we have got to live . . . we have got to work, only to work! Tomorrow I’ll go alone; I’ll teach in the school, and I’ll give all my life to those who may need me. Now it’s autumn; soon winter will come and cover us with snow, and I will work, I will work.

It is rather odd, that this block of text, is spoken at length, on a sound stage, in a movie that is otherwise settled on its Upper West Side locations (Columbia University, luxurious brownstone houses, chic restaurants, and a Hamptons beach house). It exists in an opposite universe where the understanding of life is faith-based. “There will be no mysteries and, meanwhile, we have got to live…” is not a denial of spirituality, but a refusal of the “mysteries” of mindlessness and upper class aspirations, which is the unexplainable misanthropic ideology of our current society. On the other hand, “I’ll give all my life to those who may need me”, is a testament to the life-sustaining force that connects us all: love.

The second illuminating performance by Stewart is literally the final scene of the film. She reads to her now completely inarticulate, seemingly unreceptive mother, a passage from Angels in America (Tony Kushner), the celebrated play about gay life and the AIDS crisis in the U.S. I will quote the entire passage, because it is worthwhile:

The plane left the tropopause, the safe air, and attained the outer rim, the ozone, which was ragged and torn, patches of it threadbare as old cheesecloth, and that was frightening. But I saw something that only I could see, because of my astonishing ability to see such things: Souls were rising, from the earth far below, souls of the dead, of people who had perished, from famine, from war, from the plague, and they floated up, like skydivers in reverse, limbs all akimbo, wheeling and spinning. And the souls of these departed joined hands, clasped ankles, and formed a web, a great net of souls, and the souls were three-atom oxygen molecules, of the stuff of ozone, and the outer rim absorbed them, and was repaired. Nothing’s lost forever. In this world, there’s a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead.

Stewart delivers it with studied restraint, at times stumbling over some words as if overwhelmed by the visionary insight she is expressing. The passage is of course, about love, the elusive sensation every other character appears to be numb to. Moore listens, and claims to understand. But understanding and feeling are distinct, and these two short scenes, lifted from the the theatre, and performed by a young actress of stunning talent and serious conviction, is truer art than the 90 other minutes of Hollywood coterie congratulating itself for its egocentricity and materialism.

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Categories: female leads, Notes

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