A sense of constant and fertile discovery abounds in Mike Leigh’s mid-period classic Life is Sweet, a superior film to many of his more famous mid-‘90s concoctions (the also sharp, if more contentious, Naked and the universally adored Secrets and Lies). Less high-concept and less obviously prefigured to arrive at specific narrative cues, Life is Sweet is arguably the most recent Leigh film to embody the fullest spirit of his uniquely personalized style of horizontal storytelling where moments intermingle and rest on each other rather than linearly hurtling from moment to moment to completion. Restful and relaxing it may seem, but a perilously challenging vision of life lurks within like an insurgent into the usually trifling, domesticated, prepackaged realm of narrative storytelling.
Unlike Naked, or most other films in the Western world, Leigh doesn’t drop the proverbial narrative or moral hammer at any point. Instead, he intimated quieter truths about the tonal slippage of everyday life, where a moment is a refracting prism for different psychologies and moods. Leigh refuses to wallow in the muck of storytelling avarice, instead opting for more liquid assets that can drip between emotions and moods without layering on the baroque music or the dictatorial acting to over-churn the drama into carefully demarcated, cloying FEELING. Although his characters are devoutly working class, this portrait of everyday North London is not an insulated tragedy but a film that feels almost antagonistic in its ability to turn trauma into conviviality. Its joy is both infectious and invasive in a medium where dreary, operatic drama to unleash tears that flood out the livelihood of cinema has become the order of the day.
The protagonists of the film coalesce and counterpose themselves over time, malleably intermingling with each other while Leigh reimagines their identities as slippery, unfixed constructs via his dexterous visual shifts (enjoining us to reorient our opinion of each character by always contesting our understanding of what role they play in the world; we see one character as a father one minute, as a chef the next, as a dreamer in a third scene). He also speaks heresy within the Western world by asking us to consider characters as collectives rather than individuals. Wendy (Alison Steadman), the mother, and Andy (Jim Broadbent), the father, aren’t identical souls – Wendy is embodied, ecstatic, and expressive while Andy is relaxed and tempered – but for Leigh the differences in their identities amalgamate to a whole that breathes more fully than any singular individual ever could.
Daughters Natalie (Claire Skinner) and Nicola (Jane Horrocks) are a more troubling pair, a conglomerate of passive self-reflection and jittery, apprehensive self-alienation and self-loathing, respectively. Watching the hunched-over Horrocks viciously skewer herself with her own constant ticks both reflects her uncomfortable relationship with her own body and intimates character identity not how most films do – through events, words, or “learning about the characters’ past” in an ossified, dogmatic screenplay – but through the insinuating, flickering tremors of actorly fluctuation. Leigh asks us to interpret characters, playing on our expectations of them and what we see in the frame – rather than informing us “who” the characters are through a laundry list of traits.
The film’s fifth-wheel is Aubrey (Timothy Spall), a pseudo-restaurateur who serves as a foil for Andy, who in addition to his fatherly-role is also an industrial kitchen supervisor dreaming of his own self-managed career fronting a food cart. Spall’s perturbed sparks of under-confidence flutter through his self-imposed costumes, as though he’s wearing or trying out identities (a sports jersey, a chef’s outfit) because he is uncomfortable with himself. The appended symbolism-scenery he nails around his restaurant – a grotesque cat carcass as a one-and-done, microwavable reminder of the Parisian nature his uniquely gluttonous restaurant is supposed to represent in his mind – further the idea that he is searching for an identity for himself and his restaurant, even as both elude him. Yet these immobile physical manifestations – the costumes, the symbols – of these internal self-images are incontrovertible – he has nothing more than a passing use for considering how his image might be interpreted by others. In contrast, Andy and Wendy are uniquely aware, or at least they try to be aware, of the mindsets of other people in structuring their lives.
Leigh’s films are all character pieces, not madcap stylistic showpieces with Leigh as the carnival barking ringleader. But there’s a sinuous visual style in Life is Sweet, domesticated but not anonymous (not unlike the central characters), that sneaks up on you, not only demarcating the characters but endlessly subverting expectations of mood and meaning. For instance, the glistening, smooth-as-ice tracking shot that follows Andy around his industrial kitchen without a misstep – establishing his competence and command of his workspace in one of the few notable unchained camera episodes of the film – is upended in sudden implosion – and camera hiccup – by a spoon callously left on the ground. The disruption of the camera is a reflection of the disruption of Andy’s cool, his command, as well as a marker of the pandemonium of life managed by Leigh, and the characters, through their human ability to react to the happenstance of the world around them without destroying themselves in the process.
The easy route would be turn Andy’s broken leg into a catalyst for dramatic panic, but Leigh’s more even-tempered persona as a director unexpectedly slides around the tone so that the characters, Andy most especially, locates the humor in a seemingly unwinnable situation, turning it into an out for him and his family to rest in the den together. Against the outsized carcass of dramatic cinema, especially in the Western world where characters so often structure their world and every moment is a crisis and an apocalypse, Leigh’s film feels like a gastric-bypass. The excess of the mainstream machine is replaced by a more challenging, fascinatingly unfocused shift toward characters who do not exemplify the Western norm of linear growth but instead complicate themselves without necessarily “advancing” or “receding” morally (Leigh’s task, in this regard, is vastly more human than Western storytelling norms typically accord for). There’s no moral mapping here, no sense of progress but simply of existence.
Rather than subsuming itself under a cloying narcissism like most films, Life is Sweet refrains from doubling-down on meaning with apocalyptic import. Leigh’s strategy is to derive coiled tension through a sort of contentious relaxation, unwrapping his film until the meaning flows out of idiomatic gestures we must acclimatize to rather than being overlit for us to see in broad daylight. Ostensibly a more reticent, nonexistent style, it is a significantly more devious, conflicted, complicated tale precisely for how it refuses to overstate its case like most Western cinematic dilettantes that want to make a point and don’t know when to stop jabbing the proverbial knife into their moral crusade.
Although Leigh isn’t recognizably Tarkovsky or Ozu, his singular filmmaking is conjoined with those other masters (and most of the great masters of the medium) because it defies the easy representational norms that attempt to enliven most cinema. The garden of film tends to limit its sunlight by focusing with laser-like precision on a singular event in society or a specific issue – another film would have been “about” bulimia, while Leigh’s film explores Nicola’s bulimia as a means to interrogate how people understand one another or experience the world more broadly. Too many films afford for the representational norms of how we experience – in the West, films largely reaffirm individual volition, narratives structure lives around characters, people either control their world or are controlled by it, people are governed by a single psychology rooted in some far-flung past trauma. These films “accept” or take for granted the structure of experience; they reside within these normative systems and use them to provoke answers about some specific issue – race, class, gender, a historical event – without ever questioning the governing philosophies that structure the questions they are asking, or the angle from which they are viewing.
This is fine, but another kind of filmic experience exists, one we reach, for instance, when we move away from understanding Tati’s Playtime as a denunciation of soulless modern architecture and toward a restructuring of the idea of “space” and “existence within space” altogether. We interrupt “this kind of space is bad” to discuss “what does space mean?”. Film here becomes experiential and intimately tied into the physical movements and visuals of the medium that percolate questions rather than some overriding thematic argument. The medium also becomes more philosophical in that it ascends above the conventional attempt to understand a specific conflict and into a view of life itself, an understanding conflict as a state of being.
Leigh has a killer instinct for the latter, unraveling the tendentious argumentative penitentiaries from which we typically limit our interpretation of events. Nicola’s bulimia isn’t an effect with a cause or a cause with an effect – as it would be in almost every other film. Instead, it is a prism through which we can understand personhood as a concept, through which we can broaden our horizons toward questions of how we as a species interact with one another. We aren’t articulating why she is bulimic or how she can solve her problem, demonizing her for it or exonerating her; we are interrogating how she understands the world, and implicitly, how we understand the world. It’s a question of consciousness, ultimately – Wendy and Andy can expand their minds, so why can’t we?