Housekeeping and Bill Forsyth in Person
April 15, 2010
Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street
He hasn't made a movie in over a decade, but Bill Forsyth remains the most gracious filmmaker around today. In a film world that's on bombastic overload due to wall-to-wall digital effects and overbearing 3-D, the Scottish director has always specialized in making films with the barest of plots that are populated with assiduously oddish characters who are no less real for all that. His warm, gentle, acute comedies of manners are an oasis for discerning film fans.
Housekeeping—which was made in 1987 and which Film Forum will show in a brand-new 35mm print followed by a conversation with the reclusive director—marked a slight departure for Forsyth, who based his script on Marilynne Robinson's novel: his previous four pictures had original scenarios. His first feature, 1979's That Sinking Feeling, was a cleverly-constructed bit of mischief about teenage porcelain sink thieves. Gregory's Girl (1981) brought Forsyth to the attention of American audiences with its thoroughly charming glance at a teen's puppy love for a girl he cannot have. Next came 1983's Local Hero, still his best film to date; a rich film brimming with visual and verbal wit, Local Hero remains an observant, poignant tale that never approaches maudlin.
Forsyth's 1984 film, Comfort & Joy, was almost too subdued. A quietly comic study of a put-upon DJ's involvement in, of all things, an ice cream war, it contained the usual Forsyth wit but nearly collapsed from the weight of its own slightness. With Housekeeping, Forsyth magisterially returned to the territory occupied by Local Hero.
Novel and film follow our narrator Ruth and her younger sister, Lucille. They go to the village of Fingerbone, Washington, to live with their grandmother when their mother commits suicide. Following their grandmother's death, two dowdy old aunts from Spokane, Lily and Nona, arrive to look after them until, finally, their mother's sister Sylvie shows up to take care of them. Robinson's unadorned plot teemed with the small delicacies of real life that were of obvious interest to Forsyth; he doesn't, however, simply transfer the book to film (although Ruth's narration comes right from the novel)—he has directed even more casually than Robinson writes, thereby registering the human aspects more strongly.
Take the character of Sylvie. Her eccentricity, even madness, is never doubted by Robinson; yet the fleet writing allows us to picture her differently—she's an oddball, true, but a warmhearted one. But film is visual: seeing Sylvie's irrational habits would only underline her looniness, right? Not as Forsyth films the proceedings. He presents Sylvie in context, as an independent, headstrong outsider. Aided by his understated direction, Christine Lahti's performance takes on a deeper emotional resonance. The unlikely combination of novelist, filmmaker and actress creates a deeply sympathetic and truthful characterization.
Forsyth's major strength has always been his ability to present the abnormal as normal and, conversely, the everyday as absurd. Here, there are many throwaway scenes, like the girls' mother's suicide, that are filmed so offhandedly that we laugh in spite of ourselves. Aunts Lily and Nona are shown as the foolish old spinsters they are in spite of their best efforts as guardians. And our protagonists, withdrawn Ruth and outgoing Sylvie (Lucille tires of Sylvie's offbeat housekeeping and moves in with a female teacher), are allowed to develop an unbreakable bond, but in the most restrained way imaginable.
Forsyth never becomes ornate or showy with his camera. The few visual effects he allows himself make their points by complementing, not overwhelming, the characters. A lovely late-night boating excursion is lit naturally, as Sylvie and Ruth are shown as quite at ease apart from, and as part of, the world. Similarly, the haunting final shot of train tracks that seem to go on forever into the night is a perfect metaphor for what lies ahead for our two soul sisters, as well as an adroit commentary on their kinship whose implications ultimately break the heart.
Andrea Burchill (Lucille) and especially Sara Walker (Ruth) are adept at letting us share in their opposing responses to Sylvie; Michael Gibbs' music is used sparingly and always meaningfully. To pay Forsyth the highest compliment, Housekeeping could only have been made by one director. Now, here's hoping that this beautiful new print of this remarkably unclassifiable classic leads to a DVD and Blu-ray release of one of the best films of the last 25 years.