The Wisdom to Know the Difference: Halle Berry’s Performance of Truthful Depth in Things We Lost in the Fire

By Daniel Garrett

Things We Lost in the Fire
Directed by Susanne Bier
Production Designer Richard Sherman
DreamWorks, 2007

Halle Berry is great in the Susanne Bier film Things We Lost in the Fire, a story of isolation and family, friendship and love, death and grief, bitterness and forgiveness: the film focuses on the happy marriage between Audrey (Halle Berry) and Brian (David Duchovny), a marriage that may have been founded on her beauty and moral rigor and his mellow generosity, and which ends when Brian is killed protecting a woman abused by her jealous husband; and, subsequently, Audrey’s extends a helping hand to her deceased husband’s best friend, Jerry, a drug addict she had little patience for. Audrey, a homemaker who likes cooking and woodworking, is a woman who expects a certain logic of her life, and, though she knows instinctively and intellectually what decent behavior is, her pain, judgements, and selfishness sometimes make her punishing. Halle Berry’s performance is shaded with anger, dismay, and grief in various combinations and intensities; and it is a deep, truthful, impressive performance.

Sometimes Halle Maria Berry’s delicacy has worked against her—it can be hard to imagine that such an elegant, slender woman has substance, though she has proved herself again and again—in the cinema with Jungle Fever (1991), Boomerang (1992), Losing Isaiah (1995), Monster’s Ball (2001), and Frankie & Alice (2010). Halle Berry won her industry’s highest honor for her work in Monster’s Ball, the Oscar. Berry is a longtime achiever—in high school, a newspaper editor, class president, and lead cheerleader, and a Miss Teen Ohio and Miss Teen America; and Berry, a model and actress, has appeared in the television serials “Living Dolls” and “A Different World” and “Queen,” and in the television movies Solomon & Sheba, The Wedding, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, and Their Eyes Were Watching God. Berry received an Emmy award for the televised Dandridge biography. Her theatrical films include Executive Decision, Bulworth, Why Do Fools Fall in Love, Swordfish, Die Another Day, Perfect Stranger, and New Year’s Eve, as well as X-Men and Catwoman. Although known for her beauty and glamour, there is no gloss on Berry in Things We Lost in the Fire, and when she glows it is from within, with understanding and joy.

Halle Berry as Audrey Burke in Things We Lost in the Fire, written by Allan Loeb and directed by Susanne Bier (After the Wedding), is matched by the rest of the cast, particularly Benicio del Toro, a man whose strong face is unique—handsome and ugly, a carrier of wary intelligence and earthy sensuality—and large body able to suggest strength, indulgence, and lethargy. Benicio del Toro as the aging, wild-eyed boy-man Jerry Sunborne, Brian Burke’s best friend, is a man who went from cocaine, through crystal meth, into heroin, a man who cannot afford to throw away a half-smoked cigarette, and has fallen low in his own estimation and that of his acquaintances, but Jerry is honest and intelligent and practical, and out of that, despite the degradation of his disease, comes a certain charm. Jerry, once a lawyer, as well as a longtime friend and confident of Brian, someone who knows things about Brian that Audrey does not know, impresses with his candor one of Audrey’s neighbors, who has a business he wants Jerry to be a part of, and Jerry is good with Audrey’s children.

The story is told with the fragmented editing, mixing past and present, that has become a reflex of intelligent filmmakers who want to frustrate anticipation and boredom. The digressions of consciousness rather than the predictable requirements of linear narrative are indicated. The Pacific Northwest family scenes in Things We Lost in the Fire contain affection and eroticism: these are parents, Audrey and Brian, who both love and enjoy each other and their children, but there are also genuine tensions and hurts: family rituals, such as ice cream treats for the children and mid-day sex for the parents are easily suggested; and friction too—as when his father toughly instructs his son in a swimming pool to the mother’s objection, or when the wife suspects her husband’s friend has taken money out of their car to her husband’s blithe dismissal and she rudely insists that her suspicions are true, or when the grieving mother lashes out during breakfast after asking her rowdy children for quiet. The director Susanne Bier and her cinematographer Tom Stern draw close to faces, bodies, and their particulars—eyes and hands and feet, and those features are eloquent, focused in attention or expressive with emotion. The film’s images are clear and vibrant, beautiful, accompanied by a great musical score by Johan Soderqvist, with themes by Gustavo Santaolalla; and the film is made dynamic and moving through its focus on how emotion moves through people and compels speech and action. That Audrey fluctuates between reconciling with and rejecting Jerry is but one convincing aspect of the story. One suspects that one reason Audrey in her grief reaches out to Jerry is that he has no regular life, and is available, whereas her family and friends have stable lives to which they return. When Audrey invites Jerry to stay in the vacant, remodeled garage, then throws him out, he relapses and she finds him, brings him back, and he goes through brutal drug withdrawal. There are confusions about Jerry’s health and his place in the family among the smart, curly-haired, honey-skinned children, Harper (Alexis Llewellyn) and Dory (Micah Berry). The film shows how close pain and recovery are, and the tears that accompany screening the film are earned.

“We do live in a multiethnic society, and we can’t keep needing to address it every time,” said the film’s director Susanne Bier in a conversation with an online Canadian site (Straight.com, October 18, 2007). The Danish filmmaker, who made Open Hearts and Brothers as well as After the Wedding, shares some of the cinema principles of Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, particularly a concern with presenting reality; and Bier wanted to focus on the actual content of the relationships of the characters, on the possibility for generosity among them. It is not a convenient motion picture, bringing together elements often held apart, such as Audrey’s financial security and Jerry’s squalor, Audrey’s bitterness and Jerry’s casual joy. Yet, the director’s control of pace and tone is significant; and the film suggests the importance of time, patience, thought, and generosity.

Generosity? There seems to have been some resistance to that among critics—which seems odd when one thinks of all the pointless films many critics approve with a shrug every year. Audrey invites Jerry into her “gorgeous, interracial Seattle home,” and the relationship between Audrey and Jerry “is supposed to be mutually beneficial. She saves him from himself. She and her kids are saved from their grief, which is more or less what happens. That’s it,” wrote film reviewer Wesley Morris (The Boston Globe, October 19, 2007). Sounding bored, Morris declares, “Berry gives Audrey her usual combination of strength and need. But she’s always best at negative extremes—sadness, anger, hurt, misery, desperation. She has flashes of anger, and she gets to do her crying howl, which has become a kind of anticipated movie event, like the death spiral in figure skating or half of a Jerry Bruckheimer production blowing up in the last 20 minutes.” Yet, Morris praises Benicio del Toro. Stephen Holden called the film’s scenario a “soft, fuzzy, formulaic story of pain and ‘healing’” in what is “someone’s misbegotten notion of an upscale art film with commercial appeal” (The New York Times, October 19, 2007). Holden does not believe in the marriage in the film, and finds melodrama elsewhere. “Audrey is a typical Halle Berry character: a tense, tightly wound woman who regards the world with a wary, fearful hostility; hysteria lurks just under the surface,” Holden claims.

However, I am inclined to think that part of what Halle Berry brings to the role is a conflicted racial consciousness, a hope, tenderness, and disappointment, that the film does not make explicit but which she embodies or expresses and the viewer intuits. That Berry as Audrey is sometimes dislikable in the film is part of what makes her true—to the human condition in general, and to this character in particular. Halle Berry spoke of how she, the daughter of the interracial pair Jerome and Judith Berry, had to fight to get the role in the film Things We Lost in the Fire, as she has fought for other roles not conceived for a woman of color; and Berry and her characters are matched in how they feel they have to defend themselves and the life they want. It is possible that her presence as an African-American woman suggests a difficult larger social reality nothing else in the film engages, and that reality implies a standard critics feel the film fails.

Films are part of our contemplative life and our dream life; and sometimes thinking and dreaming are in accord, and sometimes they conflict. The tensions between the two can inspire disbelief or fury. For me, Halle Berry’s participation in Things We Lost in the Fire inspires belief, and makes a richer film. “Many spiritual writers about grief point out that after the death of a significant person, we are suspended in a limbo where we are not the persons we used to be or the new person we are on the way of becoming. Halle Berry puts in an astonishing portrait of Audrey’s anger, helplessness, derangement, and yearning to escape,” wrote Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat (Spirituality & Practice), upon the film’s March 2008 appearance in the home digital video format. The film Things We Lost in the Fire deserves to be seen and seen again: then, it might be seen fully for the first time.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.

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