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Till Human Voices Wake Us (R)
Paramount Classics
Official Site
Director: Michael Petroni
Producers: Shana Levine, Dean Murphy, Nigel Odell, David Redman, Matthias Emcke, Thomas Ausberger
Written by: Michael Petroni
Cast: Guy Pearce, Helena Bonham Carter, Brooke Harman, Lindley Joyner

Rating : out of 5

“I see dead people” is not exactly a recent phenomenon in movies. Cinema itself is a perpetual state of “déjà vu”—a haunted house populated by phantasmic bodies performing acts that, by their very nature, are already ghostly.

In fact, a whole genre of films focus specifically on the resurrection of the dead. Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Mummy are obsessed with the subject. Love stories from The Ghost And Mrs. Muir to Somewhere In Time romanticize the dead as lovesick time-travelers. The Blair Witch Project and The Ring portray the dead as the artistic creators of powerful poetic experiences that destroy the living. The two greatest examples in the genre are arguably Vertigo and Psycho, in which the ultimate blonde love goddess and the ultimate domineering mother cannot be laid to rest, and hopelessly curse the lives of the men who love them.

Time will eat us all—so why not use the movies we consume to take a bite out of it? Thus, we are often unkind to the dead in films. They often return as a form of consumer crisis—eat or be eaten. If they aren’t cast as chomping zombies in The Night Of The Living Dead, we treat them as therapeutic agents upon which we feed, sentimental self-help devices to help us recharge our spiritual batteries. They come back only to help us get over them. So much for resting in peace. Movies are made by the living, for the living. We often indulge ourselves at the expense of lost souls, whose existence we fail to recognize as anything but an extension of our own needs and fears. Rarely are the dead treated with real imagination in cinema. If we are going to invite the dead for a return visit, we could at least explore our own assumptions about them.

In Till Human Voices Wake Us, Sam Franks, a psychiatrist (Pearce) returns home to Victoria, Australia after the death of his emotionally repressed father. Sam must confront his own repression regarding the death of his girlfriend Silvy (a luminous Harman), who died years before when they were both teenagers. The movie alternates Sam’s present with flashbacks from his adolescence (teenage Sam is well-played by Joyner), until the two strands of time come together to release him from his own grief, so he can let go of the past.

When he later rescues a woman from drowning and helps her recuperate, mysterious coincidences ensue. Ruby (Carter) is an amnesiac, but constantly uses phrases and gestures that eerily approximate those of Sam’s dead girlfriend. Could it be? Yes, it is Silvy, inexplicably reincarnated as an adult in the form of Helena Bonham Carter, despite the fact that the two actresses barely resemble each other. A ghost? The psychological projection of a desperate man?

Trust me, this film is built to deflect mysteries, not to explore them. Ultimately you will not care if you, much the less the characters, are alive or dead, because not only do the dearly departed get no breaks in the film, neither do the living, despite the fact that the hero is reborn into the world of the living from the dank pit of his own despair. At least as ghouls in horror films or as impossible otherworldly love interests, the dead are allowed some charisma. Here, the film’s writer/director unwittingly embalms both the living and the dead in a tomb of torturous, tasteful filmmaking. This movie is so relentlessly literate and strategically planned, I felt like Sam’s father, who dies with his eyes wide open staring at pieces on a chessboard. Mercifully, he expires within the film’s first 10 minutes, while I suffered through to its pretentious end.

Till Human Voices ceaselessly works its cloying bourgeois mojo. Its leads are prestigious, sometimes priggish actors with good bone structure—note Pearce and Carter’s impressively square jawlines and serious attitudes. The cinematography is color-coded in watery blues and greens to conveniently direct viewers to themes of drowning, personal transformation, and the fluidity of time. The events may be traumatic, but the setting is bucolic. Literary reference—but not too challenging, please!—adds to the film’s class-conscious vibe. T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is quoted from not once, but twice—your cue to heft and ponder its significance as the source of the film’s title and congratulate yourself on your middle-class education. Everyone works hard to produce a beautiful film—and kills it off completely in the process.

Till Human Voices is painstakingly tasteful, right down to a sex scene with minimal, carefully blocked nudity between Sam and Ruby, who, despite being a supernatural emanation, has conveniently returned as fuckable flesh and blood. Since they can share tender quotations from T.S. Eliot and “explore difficult issues” together, the fact that Sam has just become a necrophiliac doesn’t seem to be an issue! (Writer/director Petroni ironically has gone on to contribute as a screenwriter to, of all things, Queen Of The Damned.)

A movie like Till Human Voices refuses to allow itself or its audience to be haunted. It exists to minimize any sense of loss, much less emotional response from viewers, by providing a movie-going experience that can make a viewer feel serious and capable of confronting weighty issues, while risking as little as possible—the very definition of empty pomposity, or perhaps simply an inexperienced writer/director’s need to demonstrate class and control. The equivalent of an expensive designer life jacket, this film keeps viewers from drowning, rather than letting them go with the flow of life and death.

—Ellen Whittier

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

It’s worth a full-price ticket.

It’s worth a matinee ticket.

Wait for video rental.

Check out the video from the library, if you must.

While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...

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