As I watched Still Alice, I thought it would be interesting to see the same script (or at least the same material) as directed by a woman – Claire Denis, perhaps, or Catherine Breillat, whose Abuse of Weakness came to mind. That was the tougher of the two films, the more nuanced, perhaps, and the more probing, but in the end, I found Still Alice more affecting. In some ways, the film is not far from a Lifetime made for TV movie (or at least a Lifetime movie before the network became obsessed with domestic violence); the travails of a successful career woman, and of her family, as she is forced to submit to her human frailty far too early. And yet, especially in the last half-hour or so, Still Alice rises above weepy melodrama (not that I have anything against weepy melodramas) to ask serious questions about the nature of identity, and the value of life if it is lived without the ability to self-reflect, or to inhabit the world meaningfully. That it rises above is in part due to the script, the simplicity of which allows it to usefully tighten and focus in the end, but more so because of the acting, which is truly the reason to see this film. Julianne Moore well deserved her Oscar win (although she should have won for many other roles too, especially what I still consider her finest hour, as Carol White in Todd Haynes career-best Safe), as she moves with amazing skill from eloquent and smooth star professor to terrified thousand yard stare to almost complete emptiness as Alice’s personality evacuates. It is not a one woman show, however. Alec Baldwin gives a much more nuanced and gentle turn than expected as her sympathetic and kind husband, and Kristen Stewart, who could be the weightiest actress of her generation if she is given the opportunities, inhabits her wanna-be actress daughter, a role that could have easily been one note, with an easy grace, moving from sulky tension to mature understanding and compassion very convincingly.
The film, if it isn’t already obvious, deals with a woman and the ramifications of a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s on both her life and her family’s. Alice is a celebrated linguist who teaches at Columbia; her husband, John, also teaches there, in the hard sciences. They have three grown children: Anna (Kate Bosworth, the weakest link acting-wise) and Hunter (Tom Howland), who both also live in New York, and Lydia (Kristen Stewart), the youngest, and family black sheep, who skipped college to move to L.A. and pursue her desire to act (the main source of tension with Mom). Alice begins to notice that certain things drop out of her memory and her experience; it is not simply forgetfulness, as she enters a kind of somatic panic when she loses her way on a jog around campus. After some testing by her neurologist (Stephen Kunken), it is discovered that she not only has early onset Alzheimer’s, but that it is of the genetic variety, making her children susceptible. Anna, who has been trying to conceive with her husband Charlie (Shane McRae), will get the disease; Hunter will not; Lydia prefers not to find out and does not get tested. The rest of the film follows Alice’s increasing, and fairly rapid, degeneration, as well as the impact on the lives of her family (foremost on her husband’s career). Lucid Alice leaves a testing system, accompanied by an instructional video, to direct afflicted Alice to commit suicide, via an overdose of sleeping pills, when she has reached the point of not being able to answer a series of basic questions. Afflicted Alice, accidentally stumbling across the video (the test itself long since forgotten), tries to follow through, but botches it and loses her chance. Eventually, John moves to Minnesota for a job at the Mayo Clinic, leaving Alice in the care of Lyida, who voluntarily returns from California to live with her mother. The film ends, affectingly and poetically, to my taste at least, with a shot of Lydia reading a passage from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America aloud, and then asking her mother what it means. After much effort, Alice manages to work out the word “love.” “Yes,” says Lydia, “it means love.”
What is so intelligent about the film, and what prevents it from being overly sentimental, is that, due to the focus and simplicity of the second half, double meanings abound, and we can see the hard questions answered from both sides. For instance, we fully understand Alice’s desire to commit suicide; not only is it a fundamental way to deal with the anguish of losing her identity and purpose, but it also saves herself, and her family, the pain of lingering on far, far beyond what a normal patient of the disease might endure. That said, when the “time comes,” we cannot be sure that it is time. Is she far enough gone? She is fairly debilitated, yet she has just managed to have a video chat with her daughter, alone in the house, her caretaker off for the day (a fact which dismays Lydia). She stumbles upon the video, but has not the judgement to make a choice; she is simply carrying out the commands of a friendly, helpful, and familiar face. We feel that either way it goes has merit, but in the end, fate intervenes, Alice fumbles the pill bottle, and just as the caretaker arrives on the scene. What is so lovely and tragic about the sequence is that it presents a gentle and uncomplicated argument for life – when she signs off from the video chat, and finds the video, Alice has just made toast and tea for herself, and those humble enjoyments, set aside for the new stimulus of the suicide pact with her past, are tragic. The argument for life boils down to tea and toast. She can still enjoy the buttered bread, and the warming heat of the tea, in a sensuous way; need there be more reason to live? Is personality, or identity, necessary to exist at that level? After all, the “purely animal” is good enough for animals. Later on, as she orders a Pinkberry with her husband at one of their final outings (Pinkberry being a favorite), she snuggles against him at the counter, gently rubbing her cheek on his thick, furry flannel collar. Again, this gesture of love and comfort redeems the sadness (and perhaps amplifies it) through the purely phenomenological. The last scene, where Lydia reads to her, also works similarly. On the one hand, there is nothing left of Alice as she was – she can barely speak, and we can’t know if she understands her situation or recognizes her surroundings. When Lydia asks what the passage she read means, Alice could be responding with some level of cognition. Or, much more likely, she is simply responding to a loving face, looking upon her with kindness; she is responding to presence. Whether she understands or not, or can have a life with “meaning,” the fact that others care for her, and that she can respond at all, in the moment, to such care, makes her existence worthwhile. Lydia fully recognizes this, as her response mirrors the facticity of the moment while leaving open the question of what is understood – love is the answer in either case. Yes, the movie has problematic elements. Especially early on, the directors use a very shallow depth of field to mirror, in a too literal way, the haziness of Alice’s memory, the loss of focus; it is an overly obvious metaphor, and furthermore, aesthetically it grates, in some scenes making the actors pop out of their surroundings in a very distracting way. It is also the case that this story, like many we get from Hollywood, presents us with a best-case scenario, with the deck fully stacked in Alice’s favor: successful, affluent, and surrounded by a loving family, she is hardly the usual Alzheimer’s patient. The positive of such a portrayal is that it perhaps allows the audience to relate, and staves off the distance or denial that can easily take hold in a more “realistic” scenario (“that’s not me”). All the same, the negatives are abundant, and we wind up close to glamorizing a very unglamorous condition. Regardless, though, the gentleness and honesty with which the movie asks the question, “Is this life worth living?” and the nuanced and thoughtful, if unsurprising, answer of yes that it provides, sets it apart. The enjoyment of the senses, the presence of another, even stripped of understanding, is perhaps a rebuke to the idea that life without identity is the equivalent of a death without dignity.