I recently rewatched a favourite film of mine, The Sweet Hereafter. I’ve written about it extensively in the past, evoking especially it’s comparisons’ to Margaret Atwood’s essay on Canadian literature called “Survival”. I’m at a loss as to what I can add, and I almost don’t feel as if words can adequately describe my emotional response.
There is one scene that always holds special resonance for me, and is perhaps the “essential” scene for understanding the issues of community, family and grief presented in the film. Ian Holms, playing Mitchell Stevens, the lawyer who has come to this small Canadian town to present a class action suit against a corporation because of the death of nearly all the town’s children, is on an airplane traveling to save his drug addicted daughter once again. He just so happens to sit beside a childhood friend of his daughter Zoe. She asks him how she is, as it has been several years since she’s seen her. At first, he is reluctant to answer, but soon he opens up.
He reveals that she isn’t better, and she is actually a lot worse since just a few years ago. Then, he remembers back when life seemed “perfect”. His daughter was just three years old, and he was still in love with his wife. He still believed in them and their future together. He recounts an event when they were at a rented cottage, sleeping in bed. He wakes up and Zoe is sweating and swelling up, it’s 40 km to the closest hospital, but he manages to find a doctor on the phone. He reasons that there was a nest of baby black widow spiders in the bed, and they have no choice but to rush to the hospital. Zoe must remain calm, to prevent the blood from moving too quickly through her body, and if necessary, Mitchell will have to puncture a hole in her neck, to allow her to breath in case her wind passage closes up.
The sequence is little more than faces on screen, with several moments of interjected flashback. The images from this scene have become synonymous with The Sweet Hereafter. There are so many ingredients that contribute to the strength of this sequence, Holms’ performance of course, and of course the quality of Egoyan’s cinematography and editing. The music, which evokes the sound of the pied piper’s pipe, certainly doesn’t hurt. The scene evokes the role of the parent, and duty, as well as the sense of guilt and memory. The fragmented style of Egoyan’s film making in this and the equally good Exotica, are a summary of a painful memory. Bits and pieces coming together, things making temporal sense, without having to be chronological. This remembrance is a turning point for Mitchell, and after this he seems to understand, at least in part, his attraction to this tragic event. His attempt to rationalize and avenge this loss, mirrors his own feelings for the loss of his daughter. At one point, not too long after this particular scene, he tells another character “we’ve all lost our children. They’re dead to us.” Part of this is a guise, he is constantly manipulating these people’s loss and pain for his own benefit, and he is not above using his own history for his goal.
There is a clear reflection though, that he was and is willing to do anything to save his daughter, and that even though he sees his daughter as dead, he will still try and save her. He is willing “to go all the way”, even if he doesn’t have to. He is lucky compared to the people who have nothing left, who are apparently being punished for something that isn’t clear. The image of the pied pier is evoked because it mirrors the events of the town, the children led away, with one left behind because they are lame. One child asks, as the story is being told, “If the pied piper is magical, why can’t be use his powers to get the money?”. The babysitter struggles to answer, but comes to the conclusion that it’s because he was angry and wanted to punish the people. Throughout the film, Mitchell tries to evoke this anger, constantly asking “You’re angry aren’t you?”. It’s a reflection of his own frustration, his own anger. An inability to do “anything” about a situation, and instead of handling the wounds, he feeds the fire of his own unhappiness and those around him. He is the tool that tears apart the town, when perhaps they could have turned to each other for comfort, they turned against each other and themselves. Mitchell, and msot of the characters seem to be punishing themselves and each other. There is no outside evil, but one that rests within all of them.
Mitchell becomes the most obvious vehicle for pain and hypocrisy for the audience to tie themselves to. All the characters are holding this inside, some more obviously than others, acting out of pain… driving themselves deeper into the hole. His presence poisons the town, his pain and inability to overcome his tragedy spreads a sort of misanthropic handling of tragedy. When he is confronted with Nicole, and a lie she tells, it becomes very apparent how detached he is from his life. He tells her father, that any child that would lie like that to hurt their parent, has something wrong with them. Alluding in part to his troubled relationship, but again failing to see the whole picture, also forgetting how far he was once willing to go to save his child. He didn’t have to, but he knew he was prepared to if the worst were to come.
I also caught the tail-end of Exotica, which happened to be playing on television last night. I don’t know if I could ever choose between them, both manage to explore the same themes under a very similar structure in entirely different and exciting ways. Both have the weight of a lifetime of grief and pain, and manage to channel and explore it in less than two hours. I think they would work as an effective double feature, if anyone could possibly stand the pain they inflect on the audience. If you haven’t seen either film, I recommend them highly. Though I’m hardly an expert, I consider both to be the very best Canadian cinema has to offer. Among the very best films ever made.