Death is to be understood; death is not to be understood. Ultimately this is the chasm that separates two theoretically related but ultimately completely opposed new films about the end of life, the nature of mortality, and how our material conditioning affects (or does not affect) our chances of living out a so-called “natural” lifespan.
Sébastien Lifshitz’s remarkable medium-length doc The Lives of Thérèse opens with a simple declaration from its primary subject, French LGBT and reproductive rights pioneer Thérèse Clerc: she wants her decline and passing documented for all to see and perhaps take something from. Clerc ended two decades of domestic servitude in the spring of 1969, inspired by the sexual revolution to break free of patriarchal gender roles, but unlike many of her generation, she wasn’t content to stop with her own liberation. Leclerc spent the following years advocating – fiercely, publicly, eloquently – for legal abortion and the rights of French gays and lesbians, even performing abortions from her home before the procedure was ultimately legalized via the Veil Law in 1975.
Lives doesn’t render Clerc’s accomplishments as footnotes, but it doesn’t make any attempt to catalogue them exhaustively, either. Lifshitz’s film makes no attempt to act as a complete representation of her work and beliefs (despite the rather lofty title), but instead as a snapshot of a remarkable person in the very last stages of life, mind diamond-sharp but body in swift decline. (Clerc died between the beginning of the film’s production and its premiere at Cannes last year, and the film’s brief runtime acts, deliberately or not, as a formal nod to the irrevocability and suddenness of death.)
Despite the film’s restricted focus and too-brief 57-minute runtime, Lifshitz is able to cover a lot of ground over the course of his interviews with Clerc and her adult children, all of whom treat their mother with a clear-eyed reverence that betrays her influence on their ability to critically assess their own lives. Despite her frail state, Clerc is able to act as a kind of auteur in her own scenes, describing her ritual of getting ready for company as becoming “not heightened, [but] reassembled” – a fair description of Lifshitz’s presentation of her thought process and recollections in these scenes.
There are plenty of movies about death and dying, but it’s remarkable to watch someone as sharp and witty as Clerc confront her failing body and dwindling energy level with total lucidity. Lifshitz does sprinkle the film with archival clips of Clerc’s earlier days as an activist, but the focus remains mostly on the present. Most affecting are the scenes of Clerc simply drifting off into sleep, an act that seems to take no time at all, carrying with them an awareness that each time may be her last. Indeed, Clerc passed away at some point between the film’s production and its Cannes premiere months later.
Clerc’s Marxist class awareness and no-nonsense dismantling of the systems of control that threatened to keep her “subdued” are a marked contrast to thefamily depicted in 32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide, a first-person documentary produced for HBO. Writer-director-star Hope Litoff’s sister Ruth killed herself in 1998 at the age of 42, following a life marked by suicide attempts and countless, apparently unsuccessful efforts to medicate away her persistent feelings of self-loathing and deep insecurity. The film picks up in 2014, when Hope makes the decision to finally open up Ruth’s storage locker, in which she finds a massive trove of artwork, letters, diaries, and unused prescription pills. At first, the film seems to be about Hope’s attempt to reconstruct a timeline of Ruth’s decline through her art and writing, but before long, it becomes clear that 32 Pills is more about those left behind – specifically Hope, who’s in almost every frame of non-archival material.
While Hope and some of her subjects initially portray her and Ruth as being vastly different, it becomes clear much earlier than perhaps the film intends that Hope is also very troubled, and has been since at least adolescence. There’s a line between intimacy and toxic voyeurism, and 32 Pills crosses that line definitively around the halfway mark, when we are made to watch a severely distressed Hope break 16 years’ sobriety on-camera. While the film nods to the questionable ethics of funding a project that seems very much to exacerbate its subject and director’s well-being (a producer appears onscreen to argue with Hope about the wisdom of not disposing of Ruth’s massive pill collection, given her past history of drug abuse), the fact of its production and completion is irrevocable; had anyone involved been capable of exercising sober second thought, the project literally wouldn’t exist.
But since it does, it’s worth comparing the fate of the Litoff clan compared to the Clerc family. To the extent that anything in 32 Pills is allowed to be illuminating, given the extreme unreliability of its narrative voice, it does expose the corrosive influence of acquiescence to social norms: Ruth and Hope’s mother openly used her looks to improve her social station, knowing full well that society wasn’t about to value her for anything else, and that enshrined superficiality seemed to haunt the lives of her children. Thérèse Clerc, on the other hand, became acquainted with those norms only long enough to reject them and forge a new path, one that ultimately provided a vastly more fulfilling life for her entire family (to say nothing of those she helped through her work). There might have been an interesting film to be made about how modes of living in turn promote modes of thought and experience. But 32 Pills isn’t interested in examining these issues or pondering the other potential root causes of severe mental illness, merely in indulging the whims of a deeply unwell person for the sake of artificial catharsis.
After cratering late in 32 Pills, Hope goes to rehab and the film crowbars a transparently phony “inspirational” ending into a tragic story, with Hope finally exhibiting Ruth’s work and vowing to stay on the straight and narrow once again. There’s no such pat resolution to Lives, a film wise enough to know that death contains no answers and no solace, and that the only comfort there is comes from a life fully examined – or at least reasonably examined. Hope’s attempts to derive “objective” (Hope’s word) meaning from Ruth’s detritus is folly on its face, but Hope and her collaborators pretend otherwise only long enough to capture the precise narrative they’re after.