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One of the highlights of Locarno71 is the retrospective dedicated to the American director Leo McCarey, spanning his prolific career from the silent and sound eras through to the golden years of Hollywood, from genre-defining comedies to classic romance and family dramas. This retrospective of short films and features not only allows a reassessment (or re-enjoyment) of his oeuvre from an aesthetic and academic standpoint, but also enables an almost overlooked classic like Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) to be given another breath of life and enliven further discussions particularly on the portrayals of old age in film.
At the centre of McCarey’s movie are the elderly couple Bark (Victor Moore) and Lucy (Beulah Bondi) who, after losing their home to a bank, have to inform their children and ask their help for a temporary refuge. Their sons and daughters, however, consider this prospect burdensome and make excuses to avoid having to accommodate them. Despite the efforts and appearances of goodwill, Bark and Lucy have never felt more alone and unwelcome as they live separately in their children’s houses, especially considering this is their first time to be away from one another in their fifty years of marriage.
This depiction of distance between a couple who obviously remain in love with each other, but whose loneliness is aggravated by the very offspring of that love, is utilised to make way for sequences leading up to a grand emotional moment, something that McCarey has always been good at. Finally reunited, Bark and Lucy reminisce the most beautiful memories of their lives and feel the endless kindness of strangers, only to end in a heart-breaking good-bye to end all heart-breaking good-byes, parting ways as though parting fates, twisting the knife with the certainty of their uncertainties.
Make Way for Tomorrow may appear funnier than it should, but McCarey uses his knack for comedy to emphasise sadness and sorrow, drawing that thin line between comedy and tragedy. When he has used up all the laughs, as though peeling the film layer by layer, what remains at the core is the awful truth that old age may be ruthless, but youth can be worse. What he has always understood and managed to deliver blissfully in his comedies is the importance of timing in achieving a full emotional effect, a timing that involves technical mastery: choreography of actors, movement of camera, use of music, preference for precision, killing of darlings. His punch lines are far from mere ends to a joke: they are means with which he conveys nuances of humanity, colours of emotion, and swings of fate. In an early sequence in which Bark and Lucy speak to their children about their predicament, the humour is spitfire, unrestrained as a slapstick and jumping from one dialogue to another, but it is functional as it is aesthetic for it helps the narrative move forward and illustrate the couple’s circumstances with clarity and urgency. Comedy is the hard work of making it look easy.
McCarey uses the same precise timing in drama, and sometimes the effect is even more visceral: When Lucy receives a call from Bark, sharing intimacies with him in the presence of bridge players in his daughter-in-law’s living room, her audience is both on-screen (the players) and across the screen (the viewers), and both can hear clearly her every word and breath, her position in the frame emphasising her lack of care for the people listening in to her private conversation. Both also understand they are not supposed to laugh at this sight. This scene’s simplicity and minimalism invite empathy, and it is worthy of note that McCarey was only in his late 30s during the making of the film, buoyed by impressive insight and maturity. With the help of writer Viña Delmar, he is able not only to inspire the creation of one of the finest films of all time — Tokyo Story by the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu — but also, as time has slowly but surely kept up, to have his personal favourite work to be recognised as it should be: a timeless classic.
On the other hand, the son and daughter in Breath of Life (David Roux, 2018) are way much kinder to their parents than Bark and Lucy’s children. In fact, they are the complete opposite. The mother (Marthe Keller) is rushed to the hospital for a cancer that has returned after a period of remission. Her son Simon (Jérémie Renier) works as a doctor in the same hospital and his detached personality — his blasé treatment of his patients, some of whom are suffering from terminal illnesses — is put to a test when his mother’s condition deteriorates. Their family may have its problems (illness, divorce) but it is not driven by extreme selfishness, nothing too serious or big to tear them apart — well, nothing except for death.
Breath of Life centres on Simon’s inner turmoil, one that shows his uptightness in his personal and social relationships, always professional and never emotional. The disturbance caused by his mother’s hospital stay provides the vicissitudes of his daily struggles, and this physical proximity to her parallels with her mental proximity to death. The film is built around his male ego about to reach its breaking point, the strong walls he has long erected about to collapse. The casting of Renier as Simon is a brilliant choice: Having been directed by the Dardenne Brothers in most of their films has given him this gift for depth and nuance, allowing his character not just to be reachable but also remarkable. That moment of surrender at the end is predictable but nonetheless powerful, owing not only to Renier’s skill but also to the film’s openness to embrace its own sentimentality.
The painful realisation of life coming to a close sooner than later, and that it’s never going to be easy no matter what, has come to rest on Simon — as opposed to Lucy waving Bark good-bye and the camera lingering on her face in Make Way for Tomorrow — Simon the loving son and brother, Simon the doctor who cannot save his own mother. Breath of Life works best when it does not get distracted from its key point: that regardless how much love is given and received, regardless of the efforts made to maximise one’s life, old age is but a reminder of privilege, and having a kind family to be around as it happens a great exemption.