M is for Metastasis: Sødahl Returns with Emotional Portrait of Terminal Illness
Portraits of terminal illness have created a cinematic subgenre staple unto itself, and as such, we’ve come to expect the slings and arrows such melodramas provide. The universality of cancer allows such films the semblance of templates, generating survivor’s pathos or a wan representative guide for an elongated grappling in facing one’s physical decay.
Either calibrated for the benefit of loved ones or to showcase the agonizing predicament of the incurable victim, there’s been no stone unturned in the inevitable finality of a terminal prognosis. With carefully moderated grace thanks to a compelling performance from lead Andrea Bræin Hovig (who won, among several prizes, Norway’s Amanda Award for Best Actress), Maria Sødahl’s third film in twenty years of narrative filmmaking remains a potent example of how such despairing realities still reveal the necessity and importance of the innately human titular emotion.
Anja (Hovig) and Tomas (Stellan Skarsgård) share a comfortable existence, though they’ve drifted apart thanks to their respective creative careers. Anja is Tomas’ second partner, and together they rear six children, three from his previous marriage. Just as she’s about to stage a new show, Anja receives devastating news about recent ailments she’s experiencing—the cancer which had been eradicated from her lungs the year previous has moved to her brain. As the holidays approach and they await the consensus of various experts to find out if the tumor is operable and whether it’s metastatic, the couple are forced to confront realities of their relationship.
Just ponder all the spectacular performances terminal illness has generated amongst (particularly women) some of the medium’s most esteemed players? Shirley MacLaine’s anguish over the loss of her daughter in Terms of Endearment (1983) is a category unto itself, but then there’s the myriad of phenomenal turns invariably neglected or obscured by the amount of contemporary features exploring these realities (Emma Thompson in Wit, Cynthia Nixon in James White and Lesley Manville in the recent Ordinary Love are but a few whose powerful performances are so exemplary, the pain of observing them makes one want to turn away). Hovig belongs in this category, straddling the curious line of mother and stepmother in what presents Sødahl’s most pronounced differentiation in this familial dynamic.
Hovig’s ferociousness almost threatens to swallow everyone in her wake, and we watch her sink into a flurry of panicked appointments over the holidays, her schlubby, somewhat inert long-term partner Stellan Skarsgård mooning in tow. Likewise, this is a far cry from those glossy Hollywood melodramas it bears superficial comparison to (like those twin 1998 turns from Susan Sarandon and Meryl Steep in Stepmom and One True Thing, respectively). It’s messy, detailing lives unfinished, dreams deferred, with so many resentments pushed under the rug they’ve begun to creep back through the frayed threads.
The tenuousness of instilling hope is, of course, central to Sødahl’s conceit—before and after the discovery of cancer migrating to her brain, we’re clued into the reality of how everything concerns the impression we give to others. Anja and Thomas have a functional relationship, but it’s a union suggesting convenience more than love.
If the narrative’s grappling with the third act melodrama surrounding a shotgun wedding seems unnecessary, it’s also a specific response to the parameters of their curiously defined relationship. “I didn’t know you existed,” Anja remarks in a moment of tenderness, and like all films of this ilk, showcases how the ebb and flow of our inherent obliviousness and assumptions often lead to reclamations dulled by the complacent rhythms of life, where tomorrow is never a given.
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