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How WHITE REINDEER Defies Cliches of Grief

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by Max Winter
December 6, 2013 2:04 PM
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Spoiler Alert: This piece could be said to contain spoilers, but it would be difficult to discuss the film without spoilers.

Grief is a vast, ugly emotion. No one cries beautifully. No one copes with death gracefully. Of the emotions one might depict on the big screen, it would seem to be the most difficult. And yet, in the movies, we have grown to accept a comfortable set of images, moods, even whole scenes that communicate it: the hug, in which we usually see a comforting look on one character’s face as he or she comforts someone else; the collapse in a hospital hallway, seen from a distance, on the receipt of bad news; the lone tear, rolling down a cheek, of a person on a telephone, when we can’t hear what’s being said but we know what it is just the same; the downcast eyes; the slumped shoulders. We respond to these images, generally, without realizing we’ve seen them many times before, or perhaps because we’ve seen them before (paging Susan Sontag, maybe). In any case, Zachary Clark's White Reindeer is all about a woman’s grieving process—is steeped in it, in fact—and its great strength lies in its determination to work against filmic clichés of that process. Its outstanding set of actors, fantastically chosen soundtrack, and moving, sensitive cinematography make this film so genuine you can almost taste it.

We’ve all known someone like Suzanne, played beautifully by Anna Margaret Hollyman. As if she were switching masks, she wears a perky face at times, and a near-slack face at others, deploying them expertly. She has a blond, pretty, all-American look, and she knows it—and yet… When we first see her, she is watching her husband deliver the weather on a local news station as she waits to show a house to two clients (she’s in real estate), eyebrows raised, half-smiling, a devoted spouse; after the showing, which goes very well, her seemingly wholesome clients overjoyed, we get a side view of her, bent over for some energetic and talkative standing-up sex, in work clothes. When tragedy hits, only a few scenes later, after she has arrived home from Christmas shopping (the film is set in that cliché-laden time of the year), the first thing she does is drop her vacuum cleaner, in near-comic fashion: her husband is lying dead on the floor, shot in the head. The next thing she does is file a police report and eat a candy cane the detective offers her (a candy cane?); later she goes to a Marriott, where her parents arrive to stay with her, and her mother, in fact, sleeps in her bed. The director presents these scenes to us without preparation or fanfare—in fact, the lack of either is dramatic in and of itself. When we do see Suzanne break down, she’s on the toilet, dress around her knees, sobbing loudly and without inhibition. This would seem, in hindsight, near-sentimental if it weren’t for the fact that the director gives us another bathroom scene later, after her husband’s funeral; as he cries loudly—blubbers, in fact—he tells Suzanne her husband cheated on her with a stripper.

It doesn’t help Suzanne that the film is set in the Christmas season, when happiness is obligatory for all and attainable by fewer than we’d think—but it does help the film, by casting her approach to grief into relief. (And it also gives Clark the chance to fill the soundtrack with ghoulishly cheery Christmas music, some in English, some not, which gives the whole film a strangely taut, wired feeling.) After finding out where her husband’s mistress worked, she does what any responsible widow would do: she tracks the stripper down, gets acquainted, and then goes out clubbing with her. This isn’t before, of course, she buys over five thousand dollars’ worth of holiday oriented clothing and Christmas decorations. She does cry again, but she shares this moment of sadness with a stack of empty egg nog cartons. There are moments in the film where some viewers’ sense of decency might make them think Clark has gone too far—but the feeling shouldn’t last, because what he actually doing is trying to convey the ersatz reality of human reactions, and human behavior. Not pretty. Not graceful. Not believable, ironically enough. Indeed, Suzanne parties plenty, for someone who’s just lost her husband. She attends a holiday party, thrown by her earlier clients, which turns out to be an orgy—yes, an orgy, complete with swinging breasts, hand jobs, masks, oral and anal sex, everything. And Suzanne participates, if sadly.

Clark’s very smart move in this film is to temper the satire (in its truest sense, given that Clark is asking us to acknowledge the reality of the way we humans act when faced with unmanageable sadness, and to distrust the way grief happens in the movies) with poignance and attentiveness. Fantasia, the stripper, is played with unsettling poise by Laura Lemar-Goldsborough; as the movie winds along, we find out about her home life with her mother and her child, revealed in soft, funny touches (the child wakes Suzanne up from her sleep on Fantasia’s sofa after a long night out by banging a gift near her head and screaming “Wake up, Wake up, Wake up!”). The two women have an immediate bond, as people, and not just as a cheating husband’s wife and her husband’s lover—this friendship steels the movie, giving it a sense of uplift.

But that uplift comes from elsewhere, as well. What Clark is actually suggesting is something larger—that the answer to the problem of handling loss comes from letting the world in, in whatever form. This is very much a movie about survival—and another one of its strengths is that, even as it makes a myriad of dark jokes, it doesn’t make either grieving or subsequent survival seem easy or simple. Suzanne’s pain in the film is mixed, in even portions, with excitement, with love, and with intoxication of all kinds. Much like, it turns out, life itself.

Max Winter is the Editor-in-Chief of Press Play.

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