I was curious to see how they would do it. How would the filmmakers of Still Alice show the audience what it feels like to have early-onset Alzheimer’s? How would we understand Alice’s fear and confusion when she begins to lose her memories? How would they visualize the details of her life as they flicker in and out of focus? They did it simply, eloquently—and quite literally.
Actually, you did.
Fifty year-old Alice Howland is out for a run on the campus of Columbia University, where she works as a linguistics professor, when suddenly she realizes that she has no idea where she is. It comes as a frightening shock to her (but not to us, since we’re waiting for the tell-tale signs of her disease to appear). What was once familiar – buildings, the quad, a staircase – suddenly appear to her as fuzzy, abstract splotches. As the camera pans to face her, she is shown in sharp relief against her fading reality.
Alzheimer’s is an ugly disease. My grandmother, who lived with us for most of my life, suffered from it. And so did we. It’s a disease that significantly affects the family. I was particularly interested in how Still Alice would deal with the hopelessness of watching a once competent and highly respected woman regress to a helpless, child-like state. I was worried that using a beautiful, relatively young actress as our window into this world would diminish the disease, giving it it that Vaseline-lensed sheen that makes these types of unpleasant stories palatable to the masses. And it would have been a complete wash, if you – and we – had anyone less skilled than Julianne Moore to focus on.
Your relationship with actors is surprisingly intimate. In many ways, they are acting just for you. With every take you have to execute your duties flawlessly by keeping the actor perfectly in focus. The audience’s attention is automatically drawn to a sharper image, but as Alice’s focus is diminished, it’s the soft, faded edges of her world that draw us in. Julianne Moore appears in nearly every scene, and often the camera focuses on her face as she struggles to remember words or people or places. It’s a performance that works hard to defy the stereotype of the “beautiful lead with a terminal illness” trope; after all, this is an illness that we rarely see onscreen, and never before portrayed so fearlessly and without self-pity.
One of the many things the film teaches us is that Alzheimer’s is impervious to time. So we’re not sure how long it takes for Alice to slip away from herself. But you give us some clues. Before she is diagnosed, the camera is almost always fixed on her face. As the disease takes hold and Alice must let go of the life she once had, the camera follows her – through the Columbia library, or when she goes out for a run – like a proxy for her memories, trying desperately to catch up to her, but always falling short. Seasons pass; leaves change colours and fall, leaving branches bare; Alice and her husband John embrace on a rock by the ocean, the bokeh effect around them evoking a tender melancholy; flares bounce off the snowbanks that butt up against their brownstone.
It’s all very pretty. Too pretty.
Still Alice blurs the line between wanting to authentically portray the effects Alzheimer’s has on the patient and the family, and trying to soften the truth for those unable to handle the grim reality a disease like this presents. When it gets it right, it feels like a sharp punch to the gut. But when it errs on the side of restraint it edges dangerously into Movie of the Week territory. Thankfully, Julianne Moore’s powerful performance rescues these latter moments from their maudlin potential. Having been a renowned professor, she is invited to give a speech to an audience of Alzheimer’s patients and doctors. When the camera pans to the faces of people in the audience slow clapping with tears in their eyes, I nearly laughed at such a tired cliché. But earlier, when Alice laments that she wishes she had cancer because at least she wouldn’t feel so ashamed, I cried, because, having dealt with both diseases, I know how painfully true that statement is.
Alice’s situation – surrounded by a loving family, in a gorgeous New York brownstone and ocean-side summer home, nary a medical bill in sight – is not representative of the reality for most Alzheimer’s patients. But the conflict between Alice and her youngest daughter Lydia is familiar to anyone who has struggled with parental disapproval, and is refreshingly sugar-free. Kristen Stewart’s trademark mumbling is welcome here as Lydia and Alice are faced with an abrupt reversal of roles. This is when the film shifts from being a story about Alice to one about the people she is leaving behind. The difficult choices and daily frustrations an Alzheimer’s family faces is worthy of its own film, and though it takes up minimal space here, it is handled deftly and with dignity.
Still Alice, takes an uncomfortable topic and wraps it in an easy-to-swallow format; a beautiful woman, pretty surroundings, and a happy-ish ending. Unlike the far superior 2012 Cannes Palme D’or Winner Amour, which tackles similar subject matter but without the soft-focus pretense, Still Alice aims for mass appeal. As a family member of an Alzheimer’s patient, I realize the importance of awareness, so I don’t necessarily think mass appeal is such a bad thing. And yet, as heartbreakingly amazing as Julianne Moore is in this film (as evidenced by her shiny, new Oscar), her performance still pales in comparison to the gutting brilliance of Amour’s Emmanuelle Riva (who lost the Best Actress Oscar to Jennifer Lawrence a few years ago). But I guess Julianne Moore wasting away before our eyes gets more butts in seats than an old, naked, scared French lady played by an actress no one has heard of.
It’s all about perspective, and no one knows that better than you do.