Bier ablaze in tears, again

Danish director Susanne Bier brings her Dogma-influenced style to Hollywood.

by Kara Nesvig

You know what it’s like when your hands are full of books, cups of coffee, an iPod and an umbrella and you just can’t fathom how in the world you’re going to open the door to Starbucks without causing an embarrassing avalanche? And then someone comes along, notices your conundrum, and bolts to your side to help with that blasted door. Think about how you feel in that tiny moment, how appreciative you are that someone took some time to give you a hand. You’re sure they’ve saved your life. Often it seems we’re so busy being wrapped up in ourselves that we forget about the kindnesses other people have to offer.

“Things We Lost in the Fire”

DIRECTED BY: Susanne Bier
STARRING: Halle Berry, Benicio del Toro
PLAYING AT: Area Theaters

Danish director Susanne Bier’s new film “Things We Lost in the Fire” makes the compassion of others its whole world.

Audrey Burke (Halle Berry) has a picture-perfect life: wonderful, doting husband; two beautiful, spunky children and a gorgeous home in a safe, picturesque Seattle suburb. She shops at Whole Foods, will never have to worry about money, and is the picture of a loving wife and mother. But because this is a movie and because real life is obviously never that ideal, we know that something’s bound to destroy this happiness, and it does. That doting husband Brian (David Duchovny) is killed in a horrific accident and his family is utterly devastated. Audrey is an absolute wreck and in her hysteria, she’s decided to blame the accident on Steven’s childhood friend, Jerry (Benicio del Toro).

Down-and-out Jerry is a recovering heroin addict. He’s been knocking around the streets for years, living in squalor and chasing his next fix – we first meet Jerry in the dinginess of the slums, with a woman nodded out on his stained and dirty mattress. However, Brian was always there to help him out, no matter what the circumstance. Strong-willed Audrey never understood her husband’s devotion to the mess of a man; she tells him, “It should have been you. You should have died, Jerry.” However, she can’t stop thinking about her husband’s disaster-zone pal and finds herself extending him an invitation, offering up their unfinished garage as a home until he gets himself back on his feet.

These two wounded souls begin to use one another as emotional touchstones; they’ve both lost someone they cared about deeply and their shared sorrow gives them a common ground. Their proverbial ship has capsized and they float aimlessly about in oceans of grief; Audrey and Jerry gravitate toward one another, flotation devices of a sort. Gradually, both the Burke family and Jerry, who becomes a sort of surrogate father for the two lost children, begin to heal. The children come to love and depend upon Jerry and Audrey finds herself doing the same, almost against her will.

Ah, but wait, things are still not quite so wonderful. It can’t possibly end up this way. Jerry’s road to recovery still has a few twists and turns ahead and it throws the semblance of a family into a tailspin. Once again, Audrey is left to pick up the pieces – can she manage to triumph again amid all this disorder? “Does it ever get better?” she asks, her sadness apparent and always skimming the surface.

“Things We Lost in the Fire” tends toward the melodramatic, but the actors are top-rate and the cinematography is beautiful. That much is to be expected of Bier, whose film, “After the Wedding,” approached something of a Dogme Douglas Sirk – as much covered in cake and champagne as it was in a mess of weepy close-ups.

Berry’s Audrey is luminous: She’s vulnerable but prickly. When she finally releases her pent-up rage and true heartache in a rather ugly display of emotion, the audience is both heartbroken and relieved. Del Toro’s Jerry looks like an old battle-worn soldier; the lines of his life are clearly written on the angles of his face. We feel for them without pitying them; both are too strong for that. The camera jumps around, jerky like a junkie’s veins; this creates an atmosphere of urgency, a high intensity that lends the film an interest it might otherwise not have had.

“Things We Lost in the Fire” never tries to be a fairy tale – it’s a sickeningly perfect example of Hollywood’s glossed-over version of gritty reality – but it still lapses into dramatic predictability. We’re given our happy ending, skewed as it might be, and we’re assured that everything will work out. It’s cliché, but it satisfies.

“Accept the good” is the movie’s final message, and in those three words both the audience and the characters are reminded that we need other people, and that no matter how dark and ugly the world might seem, there’s love and beauty, and someone, somewhere, cares.