Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Things We Lost in the Fire -- accept the good

Director: Susanne Bier, 2007.

The first English feature film from Danish director Bier, Things We Lost in the Fire is a slow and steady study of loss and grief, recovery and redemption. Like Kieslowski's Blue (Trois Couleurs: Bleu), this deals with a woman tragically widowed who must decide how to respond.

The movie opens on the day of the funeral. Audrey Burke (Halle Berry) is burying her husband Brian (David Duchovny). In flashback, we see Brian as a committed husband and loving father. A successful land developer in Seattle, he had strong relationships with his family and friends. One of those friends is Jerry Sunborne (Benicio Del Toro), whom Audrey hates. Jerry is a heroin user, a junkie. Jerry always seemed to come between her and Brian. But Brian and Jerry were boyhood friends, and Brian's loyalty is undeniable. Audrey was ever afraid that Brian's trips to the slums where Jerry lived would end in disaster.

One day Audrey's nightmare becomes reality. The flashing lights of the arriving police car is a harbinger of bad news. Brian is dead in a bizarre but brave incident. Shot to death on the route that he ran every morning. Audrey sinks into her self, she reaches out to Jerry. Though resentful of his life ("Why wasn't it you, Jerry?"), she offers him space in her unfinished garage free of rent. But Jerry is not without his problems. Still recovering from addiction, he relapses when pressure mounts. Heroin is "like the kiss of God" he says to Audrey, but once addicted it is a pleasure you chase but never find again.

Halle Berry brings a fragility and sensitivity to Audrey. She is a soul in need of human contact. And Del Toro conveys the conflicting emotions in an addict, wanting to stay clean yet craving the high of a quick fix. Like Renton in Trainspotting, Jerry shows the pain of heroin withdrawal. But whereas Trainspotting was a comedy this is the painful business of life. We Lost in the Fire shows the need for human touch, human friendship. Audrey cannot cope alone after Brian's death. Likewise, on his own Jerry is strung out on drugs. Grief and addiction are stubborn bosom buddies. But together Audrey and Jerry can help each other. Audrey can help Jerry kick the habit; Jerry can help Audrey face life.

We are like this, too. We need others. We were made for life in community. We can help each other face the trials and tribulations of life, the successes and the falls. The writer of Ecclesiastes put it this way: "If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!" (Ecc. 4:10)

Things We Lost in the Fire Publicity StillEarly in the movie, Audrey and family are gathered for dinner after the funeral. There is sharing and remembering of Brian's life. But it is superficial. It is what often happens at funerals. Perhaps grief is too fresh for emotional vulnerability. Toward the end of the film, there is a parallel scene. Only now Kelly (Alison Lohman), Jerry's friend from Narcotics Anonymous, is present. She has experienced loss, and knows the power of getting in touch with the emotion of grief. She cuts through the banter to ask some questions about Brian, tough questions that penetrate Audrey's protective shell. Kelly is the catalyst that allows Audrey to finally understand that Brian is gone. And with that understanding comes genuine, ear-splitting grief. Kelly helps Audrey realize that things lost are less valuable than people lost. One can be replaced, the other cannot.

Things leaves us with two impressions. The first is that people matter so much more than things. We can become distorted in our perspective, as Audrey was. We may lose stuff, even all our stuff. But it is still stuff. We can replace stuff. Even if we do not have the resources, the money, to do so, it is still possible. We can grieve over lost possessions, and perhaps we should. But we still have our relationships with our family and friends. People are different. When they die, they cannot be replaced this side of eternity. If they have followed Jesus they will be with him (2 Cor. 5:8). And if we, too, are Jesus-followers then we can be assured of a heavenly reunion (1 Thess 4:17). But that will not occur on earth. Grief for lost loved ones is infinitely more painful than grief for things we lost in the fire. Kelly gives us that wake-up call.

Things We Lost in the Fire Publicity StillThe second impression is that of hope. There is always hope. As Audrey learned to let go, little by little hope emerged. Jerry taught her to "accept the good." Even in the darkest storm there is usually some good. Brian's death helped Jerry to rediscover life. As Audrey saw hope and life emerge in Jerry, she found hope in her own life. Jerry's friendship helped Audrey to rediscover her children. Even in the Seattle storm a bouquet of roses reminded her, and us, of life's precious goodness.

Sometimes it takes a tragedy to wake us up to what we have. But it doesn't have to be that way. We can find hope in Jesus, who himself is our hope (1 Pet. 1:3). We can accept the good that comes our way, if we are looking for it. Perhaps it's time to put our consumeristic gaze aside and focus on relational sharing. Let's take time to enjoy those we love in case they go out and don't come back.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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