Life Is Sweet (1990)
Directed by Mike Leigh
Monday, February 20th at the Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of Film Comment Selects
When a cinephile has the Mike Leigh epiphany, an experience best catalyzed by juxtaposing his early, tidily anti-Thatcher Jeremiads (Bleak Moments, Meantime) with his later dramaturgical fugues (Secrets and Lies, All or Nothing), he realizes that a productive way of assessing public policy is to determine how well a government helps civilians to fail with dignity and grace. That Leigh's often deluded characters can't figure daily life out despite their honesty complicates the distinction between municipal and cosmic justice—exi-state-tialism, let's call it.
A mid-career work, 1990's Life is Sweet illustrates this philosophy almost didactically. With this film, Leigh slithers out of high-concept realism and into the non-allegorical socio-political crawl spaces where a couple—played with nimble about-faces from bawdiness into crisis and back by Jim Broadbent and Alison Steadman—clings to the lowest rung of the middle class with purple-knuckled tenacity. They live in a quasi-squalid flat with their twin, twentysomething daughters (Claire Skinner and Jane Horrocks), one of whom is a pragmatic genderqueer plumber who's made peace with what little she has. The other's an indolent faux-socialist suffering from body image torment.
The resulting brief-by-Leigh-standards narrative milks a series of personal follies, most of them funnily culinary, that sour, curdle, and perhaps coagulate into edible cheese. Subplots involving fixer-upper snack trucks and a restaurateur buffoon (Timothy Spall) offer surprisingly broad laughs, but even when caricature seeps in, the emotionally peripatetic script and affectionate close-ups refuse to turn humility into humiliation. The film is, in fact, most poetic when its characters are at rest, interacting purely for the sake of it, as Broadbent and Steadman are in a lyrical pillow talk sequence that devolves from idle brooding into the nonsense only aging lovers who are half-asleep can utter. The title is no irony, and that's the movie's triumph.