1. characterized by assumption of dignity or importance, especially when exaggerated or undeserved.
2. making an exaggerated outward show; ostentatious.
3. full of pretense or pretension.
If you want to take cheap shots at a movie, one of the best ways you can do it is by calling the movie “pretentious.” You don’t even have to know what it means, all you need to know is that it’s a way to dismiss anything going on in a film other than the obvious, and seems to be typically employed against films that defy easy interpretation (or, shit, even just require paying attention). It’s a low form of criticism in my opinion because it’s often used as a way to end discussion. If a film is pretentious, it’s not worth further consideration because nothing that happens in it can be taken seriously, you see. It was all just an attempt by the filmmakers to make something that was better than it had a right to be. And that’s the other icky thing about accusing film of pretension - it carries with it this idea that the film is trying to rise above its station, to be “better” than it really is, and that’s a really weird idea to have. It wouldn't be so bad if it didn't go hand-in-hand with a style of criticism that emphasizes the primacy of the author and literal interpretation, which is to me, like, the least interesting way to think about film there is. It’s right up there with “quit seeing stuff in the movie that isn't really there” as just utter tedious bullshit. Calling a film pretentious is often the critical equivalent of calling someone a nerd. It’s what you do when you don’t like them but don’t understand why you don’t like them.
Having said that, you’re probably wondering why I started this post with the definition of the word. Well, see, it’s like this: After.Life is - and there’s no getting around it - a pretentious movie. It wants desperately to elevate its story and fails so utterly.
It begins with schoolteacher Anna Taylor, in bed with her boyfriend. He’s trying to make passionate love to her, but she’s distant, unresponsive. It is a cool, well-lit room and something goes unspoken between them. He doesn’t know what’s wrong, and she won’t tell him. She gets headaches and nosebleeds, she takes pills.
Eliot Deacon is a mortician at a small funeral home. He is preparing someone for their funeral, talking to them as he washes them, dresses them, applies makeup to hide their pallor. He’s a quiet man doing an important job. He’s solicitous with the family, knows which flowers to select. Lots of quiet moments in still rooms going on here.
It goes on like this for a bit, until Anna ends up at Eliot’s funeral home to attend a service for her late piano teacher. She’s all fucked-up inside - problems with her boyfriend, a weird relationship with her mother, and then there’s the mysterious pills she keeps taking. She gets into a fight with her boyfriend after a really awkward dinner (one that suggests they should have stopped being a couple a long time ago), driving off in tears, and it’s raining, and it’s dark, and she’s not watching where she’s going. There’s a car accident.
And the next thing she knows, she’s on the table in Eliot’s mortuary. He’s telling her she’s dead now. But then why can she hear? And why can she speak?
What makes it worse is the story is told in a language of high style that ends up obscuring and enervating the narrative instead of conveying a mood. All of the dialogue is elliptical and portentous, people declaiming on Life and Death and Love, standing around with tears in their eyes, or looking off into space. (Well, except for a subplot involving the boyfriend’s attempts to figure out what’s going on, where all of the cops seem to be played for comedy. It’s probably supposed to be surreal or Lynchian, but it’s ugly and jarring instead.) Everything takes place in artfully lit rooms, tastefully appointed, in some nameless small town somewhere. Small enough that everyone knows each other, but well-off enough that every interior looks like it came out of a Pottery Barn catalog. It all takes place in a temporal, geographical, and emotional vacuum, and you get the sense that the big themes were maybe supposed to carry the story, but they don’t.
And that’s the problem, and it’s why no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get away from the idea that this movie is, at its worst, pretentious. It seems to want to be about something other than what it is about, but it can’t even deliver on what it’s supposed to be about (in the basic narrative sense, at least), so any other reading is difficult to sustain. For all of the portentously-delivered dialogue about the nature of life and death and love, for all of the nightmare imagery that wants to suggest an alternative interpretation, for all of the is-she-or-isn't-she moments, the story never rises about the level of "psycho takes woman captive because he has weird ideas about life." Eliot is played with slightly more subtlety than Jigsaw in the Saw movies, but that's such a low bar to clear that it doesn't count for much, and the two characters are far more alike than not. There's no room left over for any real surprises or left turns into something more interesting when most of the run time is devoted to a particular interpretation of events, with just enough fakeouts thrown in to distract you. There are the moments involving cops that are totally out of left field and don't jibe with the largely somber mood of the film as well, and a subplot with a bullied little kid that doesn't really go anywhere until it goes someplace creepy, so even on a basic mood level it can’t sustain itself. To top it all off, the end as a whole it feels sort of tasteless and gratuitous, pointlessly nihilistic as if that somehow will lend the movie weight, which it doesn't. It wants to be about big ideas, but doesn't take the time to construct a story that can carry the weight of those big ideas, and it wants to keep us guessing, but it hands us the answers almost right out of the gate (and proposes that there is an answer to begin with) and only interrupts to halfheartedly say “or maybe not”, only to reaffirm the original interpretation minutes later. It wants to badly to be something more than it is, and in doing so, falls so short of even the basics.
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