Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime returns to the same characters made famous in his caustic social satire Happiness. He talks to The Skinny about balancing humour with poignancy and why his latest film is not quite a sequel
I first watched Todd Solondz’ Happiness (1998) as a teenager under the recommendation from a friend that it was one of the funniest films she had ever seen. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting but it certainly wasn’t what I got. The film tells the interconnecting stories of three sisters and the men in their lives, which includes a paedophile and a man addicted to making lewd phone calls. All told in such a deadpan manner that you really aren’t sure which side of the tragedy/comedy line to stand. Solondz captures both the painful struggles of humanity and the hilarity of those same scenarios. Some viewers were repulsed, others were in stitches. Some critics lauded Solondz’s acute social observations, whilst others challenged the moral subtext. The same friend who recommended the film admits to showing it to her sister, who, once it had finished, got up and went to bed without a word and refused to speak of the film again.
Life During Wartime, released 12 years later, returns to the same characters. Solondz calls it a “quasi-sequel”, well aware that audiences are “not getting more of the same, so to speak”. To start, he’s completely changed the cast. Not that this is a new tactic for the director, his film Palindromes (2004) had eight different actors, who didn’t look remotely alike, all playing the main character. “You know, I like to have fun,” Solondz says. “I like to play and it’s more interesting to see what new actors can give me. I’m unbound by any constraints. I’ll just change the story a little or the character. If you watch a TV show and midway through an actor quits or dies, they just replace them and nobody really comments on that, you know? They just pretend it didn’t happen. For me it made it much more interesting and intriguing – what can I do if I change these elements? It gives more freedom to play.”
The new cast sees Scottish-born actress Shirley Henderson taking on the role of Joy, a choice that the director was particularly pleased with. “I just loved her!” he enthuses. “I’d seen her before in Intermission, I think, that’s when I first fell in love – I loved her moustache and she kind of had me there!” Other inspired casting comes in the form of Allison Janney who plays Trish and Charlotte Rampling as newcomer Jacqueline, whom he describes as a “hardy character”. The location of the film is also different; most of it is based in Florida, what Solondz calls the “land of generica” where Trish moves to in an attempt to start a new life. The new setting also lends the film a different visual style – full of vivid blues, pinks and ochres.
But perhaps the most significant difference between the two films is the tone. “Life During Wartime is a very sorrowful film, a much more sorrowful film than Happiness, which was more caustic, more acidic.” Solondz isn’t quite sure where this change originates from. “I’m ten years older so I’m a different person to an extent but I think that’s what's a little deceptive about calling it a sequel; yes the arcs of the story are being extended yet at the same time the spirit is different.” Keeping the title in mind it’s tempting to also attribute this new spirit to the political changes that have taken place in America since Happiness was made. “The movie is very much infused with the spirit of the times,” agrees Solondz. "That we live in a time of war but a time without sacrifice, with a great deal of insulation from the reality of what that means.”
Whilst Solondz' latest effort doubtless feels like a gentler film than its predecessor it still displays Solondz’s distinct ability to marry humour with a sense of pathos. “The comedy is not comedy with a ‘k’, you may or may not even laugh,” he says, “But there’s a sort of irony at work here which is all tied in to the sorrowfulness, the poignancy and the emotional lives of these characters and how much they’re struggling with their own particular issues.” What might come as a surprise is the great respect that Solondz holds for his characters, despite the humour that is taken from them. “I don’t approach them as dysfunctional; I see them as functioning in a different way. I take them to heart and I take them seriously." This last statement hints at the underlying morality in Solondz’s work. The playing out of scenes which are at once hilarious and painful to watch isn’t just a twisted form of entertainment it’s also a big two finger salute to the comfortable and reassuring media that dominates our culture. Some of it you might not want to watch, but Solondz is going to show you anyway.
Life During Wartime is released 23 April