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Fragile Sensibilities

By Mary Summerbell

It may seem far away, but in just nine weeks Beloit International Film Festival will be back again. In 2017, its twelfth year, a ten-day event is set for Friday, February 24, through Sunday, March 5. I highly recommend it as a local treasure of social, cultural and artistic merit.

Every year I attend BIFF there are movies I see that stick with me, that stay in my brain, that I keep going back to, mentally and emotionally, to question and process and ponder long after the festival is over. These are the ones that teach me the most, as my random rumination of them, over time, gives me opportunities to change and grow in my perceptions of them and the people, situations and concepts they present.

One such haunting film for me this year is “Fragile Storm.” It’s a short – only ten minutes long. But the impact it had on me, in my thinking about health and relationship issues that it addresses, as well as the cinematic techniques used to present them, is persistent.

The movie is well-made and much-lauded, with high-caliber actors and a capable, experienced director, receiving awards from several film festivals. Previews tantalizingly hint that it’s about “one of the deadliest issues of our time,'” which turns out to be Alzheimer’s. The trailer whispers of “promises impossible to keep.” This film is clearly cleverly marketed to build optimum suspense. But just because it’s well done doesn’t mean it’s the most honest or beneficial presentation of such a sensitive and serious subject. Alzheimer’s, or any other incrementally debilitating disease, is heartrending and difficult enough for patients and families without wrapping it in unnecessary conflict.

Spoiler alert. I reveal the surprise of the film in this review.

I had a very visceral reaction to viewing “Fragile Storm.” I was basically hit in the belly by the brutality of it, and I felt tricked by the “twist” of it. It opens with scenes of an older man holding captive a much younger woman. She is tied to a chair as he feeds her. Refusing the food, she spits it at him. He slaps her. She gets free and a frantic, violent chase takes place, with screaming and scratching and a bloody hand print on the wall. Just as I’m thinking “I don’t want to watch any more of this,” the woman escapes by locking herself in a bathroom.

As the man shouts and pounds on the door she seeks a way out, only to find, in her reflection in the mirror, that she is not young, but old, as he is. In this lucid moment she is startled into realizing that she is sick in some irrational way, and that he is trying to keep her safe and take care of her. She flashes back to an earlier time when she begs him to keep her at home with him “no matter what” and he replies, “I promise.”

The movie ends with them huddled together on the bathroom floor, the camera coming to a close-up of his face, as he stares wearily ahead into the rest of his life with this afflicted, beloved woman. The film is considered innovative in its focus on the caretaker as equally affected by illness as the person who is sick. I applaud this dual perspective.

But, at the time, I was puzzled that anyone would, even for a minute, consider trying, all alone, to care for someone so seriously ill, much less telling a loved one that they will. It’s so obviously beyond impractical. It simply defies common sense to make such a foolish promise. I didn’t accept the basic premise of the movie as realistic. Why make a promise that’s impossible to keep? Because without it, there is no movie, or at least less drama.

Maybe I was just miffed that I didn’t guess the mystery of it. But when the “young” woman saw the old woman in the mirror, when one actress was suddenly switched for the other to show the mental shift of the character, I was more than surprised. I was disappointed. I felt I had been deliberately deceived, that the movie had needlessly and pointlessly played with my emotions and I was no longer open to whatever its message might be. When I told the director later, she explained that it’s extremely expensive to age someone as much as needed for this movie, so she used two actresses to play one character instead. Still, I was skeptical.

What I saw as the ultimate irony of the film, which no one else seemed to notice, was that in his supposedly loving choice to care for his wife alone, at home, the man in the movie ended up being abusive to both her and himself. This was not at all a balanced or healthy situation. It was severe and extreme. This movie, so effusively praised by so many, with many requests to show it at churches and meetings, seemed, to me, intrinsically flawed.

Since then I still see it that way, but other ways also. I’ve realized that illness affects us all in different ways, possibly impairing our judgement, diminishing our common sense. Our responses under such stress are not necessarily rational or logical. In matters of the heart, when it comes to those we love, especially when they are suffering, we are apt to want to do more than we can for them, more than it is possible to do within human limitations. And sometimes we don’t know until we get there that we’ve gone too far.

I still see this film as an extreme example. But maybe that is what most people need right now. Maybe any attention at all on this topic is a good start toward something better later. Maybe this movie will be a vehicle for discussion of more practical care as people can vividly see in it how doing too much is not healthy or helpful to anyone.

As imperfect as I found this film to be, I learned a lot from it, through reasoning and mellowing my perspective over time. And that’s part of the fun of the movies at Beloit International Film Festival. They get to you, affect you in wonderfully unexpected ways. Come – see for yourself next year at BIFF.

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