The je ne sais quoi of ‘Still Alice’

Early on in the film “Still Alice,” Julianne Moore is running. She’s not chasing after someone like she was in sci-fi thriller “The Forgotten.” She’s truly lost. And the monsters she’s running from are invisible — like the Silence from “Doctor Who.”

Moore plays Alice Howland, the type of woman you’d aspire to be. She’s poised and articulate. Intelligent and accomplished. And very, very loved. This is evident in the first scene of directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s film, “Still Alice,” starring Julianne Moore as the loving and successful Columbia University linguistics professor.

When we first meet her, Alice is surrounded by her impressive family. Her husband John (Alec Baldwin) is a doctor at Columbia University. Her eldest daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth) graduated from law school and is an expecting mother-to-be. Her son, Tom (Hunter Parrish), is going through medical school. Her youngest girl, Lydia (Kristen Stewart), is pursuing a career in acting in Los Angeles.

Yet, if you’ve read Lisa Genova’s bestselling novel which the film’s based off of, you know how this story goes. Here’s a woman who has everything. Watch as she tragically loses it all.

Alice is running from something more far frightening than the aliens who kidnapped her kid. She’s running from Mother Nature, who gifted her with the inherited disease which also crippled her late father. At age 50, she’s been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer and she’s slowly losing her mind.

We watch Moore transform from the charismatic and self-assured professor and mother to someone who loses her bearings. She pulls out a bottle of Dove body wash from the fridge. She repeats questions and sentences over and over and over. She soils herself while looking for the bathroom in her own house. She doesn’t recognize her house-keeper or daughter. “I wish I had cancer,” she tells her husband. “I wouldn’t be so ashamed. People put on pink ribbons if you have cancer.”

As Alice loses more and more of herself to the disease, the camera blurs. Cinematographer Denis Lenoir focuses his lens on Moore’s forlorn expressions and vivid red hair. In one scene, Alice is the only one in focus. Her husband and children are blurry in the background, discussing her treatment as if she’s not there.

Glatzer, who’s been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, might know what it’s like to feel invisible. ALS has taken his words, but not his mind. The film treats disease with sensitivity, but also forces us to confront the frightening effects of aging. We might also lose our minds someday — our ability to see, hear and think. Whether it’s at 50 or 100, our years are all numbered.

If it was Glatzer and Westmoreland’s intention to make us empathize with the sick and elderly, they’ve succeeded. The camera focuses on a series of text — Words with Friends, plays, lecture notes — all the building blocks of human communication. When we lose our words, we lose our ability to think as well as our ability to express our desires. We become invisible. A husk of our former selves. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have thoughts or feelings. We just might not know how to express them.

Through Glatzer and Westmoreland lens, Alice is never invisible. Moore shines. Instead, words, people, faces and settings blur around her. She’s still Alice — even as she loses her sense of time and place, her words and memories. She says so in a tear-jerking speech given at an Alzheimer fundraiser: “I am struggling. Struggling to be part of things, to stay connected to whom I was once…. It means so much to be talking here, today, like my old ambitious self who was so fascinated by communication.”

“Still Alice” was written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland based on Lisa Genova’s novel. The film is nominated in the 87th Academy Award for Best Actress. Moore won the 2015 Golden Globe award for Best Actress for her performance as Alice Howland. 

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One thought on “The je ne sais quoi of ‘Still Alice’

  1. Pingback: My month in movies theatres | Pass the Popcorn

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