It surprised me to realize that I have seen most of Susanne Bier’s recent films – considering I don’t see an awful lot of Dutch movies. Nevertheless Brothers and After The Wedding had marked her out as a serious talent, and so I was tentatively looking forward to Things We Lost in The Fire. Tentatively because it has being marked as a “recovering from grief” film coupled with a “rehab” film. And neither of these Hallmark movie of the week subjects really appeal to me. My tentativity was mildly justified.

There is a sequence in the middle of What We Lost In The Fire where the eldest daughter of murdered David Duchovny asked Benicio Del Toro’s recovering smack habit the following:
“Do you ever feel like you’re living in a movie?”
Its a key quote, which pulls the viewer out of the film for a second BECAUSE THEY ARE LIVING IN A FILM. And this issue of knowingness is clearly an issue for Bier as well because she is trapped by her genres and cannot wriggle out of them. And her two genres are particularly robust ones which do not allow much variance from the norm.

We need to see the incident. We see when the parent discovers they have been widowed. We see the children’s grief. Funeral. Difficulty of bringing up the kids on her own. THEN A mysterious stranger / catalyst helps out. Slow recovery followed by relapse when widow realises that new person is REPLACING LOVE OF LIFE. Understanding of differences, reconciliation followed by hopeful ending.

This formula does not brook too much wiggle room. So there is a little bit of time played with in the first third (so we can start with the funeral and THEN see the happy marriage). And the fact that Halle Berry plays the wife is also a touch difficult, this is not the first widow she has played and not the first film where she has employed her disturbingly weird crying. She’s not bad, she is just as trapped by the material which is trapped by its genre as Bier is. And of course she is also trapped by…

Junkie, shown to be in a bad situation. SOMETHING HAPPENS as a catalyst to them getting clean. They get clean, life improves. Things seem to be going well (maybe some NA meetings too) and then SETBACK. Junkie is damaged and falls back on the drug. Relapse followed by agonising cold turkey sequences. Starts to accept responsibility for life (through help of new loved ones) followed by hopeful ending.

Benicio Del Toro is as hamstrung by his genre as Halle Berry is with hers. The junkie is a actors dream in many ways, as you get to showcase feckless, charming, ruthless and extreme pain. But you also get to do it via a pretty well torn path which is now so cliched that it is usually merely implied these days in rock-biopics. Problem is you as viewer knows these beats so well that you can predict what will happen when. Since we also know the beats of the grief movie, it suddenly becomes really quite easy to work out where they will dovetail. This movie mash-up plays out exactly as you would expect it, its two powerful storylines are weakened by the constant reminder that this is a film and will work out how you expect it to.

As for “Do you ever feel like you’re living in a film”, well no. Mainly because in the movies, they don’t go to the movies much. Bier at least caught me out with that one – with a hooky going to the cinema sequence which reminded me of my youth. Not a bad film, impossible to be a good film then.