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My Top 6 Films about Loss

June 15, 2015

Cinema plus Psychoanalysis equals the Science of Ghosts”. Jacques Derrida

Admittedly, ‘loss’ is a very generic term. Yes, it can mean the direct grieving for a loved-one, but it can relate to many other forms of ‘bereavement’ – from the obvious forms (loss of something tangible – a person, a place, some form of social or financial status), to the more subtle and ephemeral (loss of a sense of liberty, youth and hope – loss of time)? Cinema seems a very apt medium to consider loss, and I’ve picked out six films which best represent this ‘feeling’….

Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson, 1951)

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You couldn’t compile a list on cinematic representations of loss without referencing Robert Bresson – film’s finest purveyor of elemental human fables. His Au Hasard Balthazar is perhaps the most perfect parable known to cinema, and though it touches on ideas of loss, it’s more of an overarching moral on the state of grace. Instead, his masterful Diary of a Country Priest is a haunting study on the intensity of grief that creeps up on a shy young priest as he begins to process the cruel irrelevance of his vocation. Engaged on a relentless treadmill of visits to the same cold residents of his parish, that sapping of his spirit imprints in the priest such a feeling of loss and redundancy that he contracts a terminal illness – but the beauty of Bresson is that in the priest’s quiet, poignant submission to his mortality, he ascends to a level of nobility far above the transient pettiness of the parishioners around him.

The Cranes are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957)

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Over 20 million Soviet Union citizens died during the Second World War – that’s quite some loss. Mikhail Kalatozov’s staggeringly brilliant The Cranes are Flying succeeds in somehow acting as microcosm for all that loss, in the epic, sweeping way that it dramatises the trauma of the military conflict – while also offering a highly moving personal story of female self-determination as ‘heroine’ Veronika undergoes a series of brutal indignities and ‘bereavements’. There’s the initial loss of her fiancé to the battlefields, her likely rape by her fiancé’s cousin, being ostracised by her fiancé’s family, resigning herself to the joyless struggles on the homefront, and the devastatingly cruel late revelation about her fiancé’s fate. Remarkably though, she finds the dignity to transcend all that when she graciously hands out the flowers reserved for her fiancé to far more fortunate people at the climax.

Nostalgia (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1983)

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What else is nostalgia but a form of loss, a gentle mourning for the past? Andrei Tarkovsky’s dreamlike essay on the state of nostalgia mines this sense of melancholic yearning best. It’s a haunting, hypnotic work, as an ailing, exiled Soviet poet ghosts his way round some of Italy’s most beautiful sights, with his elegiac memories of his Russian family and country house scorching themselves quite literally as images over his present Italian scenery.

Time to Leave (François Ozon, 2005)

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A feckless, high-octane Parisian photographer – barely turned thirty – suffers a profound shock when he’s diagnosed with an aggressive terminal illness which will claim his life in a matter of months. This ‘hook’ sends François Ozon’s protagonist inward, on one of the most poignant, tender and lonely portrayals of a person grieving for their mortality that I’ve ever seen. Utterly heartbreaking….

To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, 2012)

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All Terrence Malick films in some way thematise the loss of innocence – from the teen killers of Badlands, and the Old America of The New World, to the truly epic treatise on the magical sanctity of childhood that is The Tree of Life. Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder is slightly different and in some ways more complex as it documents almost entirely through image, word and music (there isn’t really a narrative as such) a form of primal emotional and geographical dislocation. Emmanuel Lubezki’s swooning camera almost haunts its way through the picture, re-imagining the landscapes of that famous country of the Old World, France, then the barren, open plains of the New World, as colossal, timeless spaces on which the transient lives and dramas of its players (including the film’s two star-crossed lovers) will pass on through eternity.

Blue is the Warmest Colour (Abdelattif Kechiche, 2013)

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The end of a relationship and the loss of a partner can be as traumatic as any conventional bereavement, and no film understands this more than the quite brilliant Blue is the Warmest Colour. This film is so wise, so mature, so graceful in its depiction of the rise and fall of Adèle and Emma’s relationship, and this reaches its apex in the staggeringly moving final scene when Adèle manages to bring herself to go and see Emma’s new art exhibition. This is some months (maybe even years) since they last saw each other, and though there is a quiet decorum and dignity about the way they converse and respect the other’s new circumstances, the furtive way they look at each other betrays the intense undertow of undying compassion that lurks forever in the hearts of people who have truly loved. (June 2015)

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