Wednesday, November 4, 2009

I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise

What if you made an instant connection with someone? An instant chemistry unlike you'd had with any other person ever? What if you met the love of your life only through speaking to that person and then, before ever having met them they died? This is the question that the lovers in the superb A Matter of Life and Death. The film by the collective duo known as the Archers (Michael Powell and Emric Pressburger) may be my new favorite love story ever captured on film.

In the fury of a World War II, airman Peter Carter (David Niven as the ultimate Englishman) connects with American radio operator June. Unfortunately its as his plane is going down. Peter dies, except because he is in deep fog the heavenly host has a bit of a bureaucratic snafu and instead of dying and going to the afterlife Peter meets June face to face. They hit it off as well in-person as they did on the radio and all seems right in the world. Then the after-life corrects their error and try to take Peter. But Peter is obstinate and insists since he's still breathing he has no business in the afterlife. This movie is as impressive as much as for what it is as wha it isn't. Though it deals with the afterlife the Archers keep it fairly non-denominational. Their afterlife is shot in a pristine monochrome. Whereas Earth is shot in vivd three-strip technicolor. Its a bold and telling decision to choose these color schemes. Their heaven may look pristine and art-deco gorgeous but it can't compare to the sensual, detailed color of real life.

The film goes from love story to court-room drama as Carter employs friend of June and recently deceased Dr. Frank Reeves (Archer favorite Roger Lievesey), who believes that Peter's raving about heaven trying to take him is all in his head. Here the Archers sneak in both a sharp critique of English Imperialism as well as a impassioned defense of British values as Reeves eloquently tries to make the case that Carter should live. The prosecutor, played by Raymond Massey defiantly argues that bringing Carter back to life is a pointless gesture as their cultures are too different and a couple that's known each other so briefly can't truly be in love. It is here that film daringly becomes about the then budding world power of the US and the in decline British empire. The film never loses sight of the love story, but its refreshing to see a film present and challenge the viewer with something so different than what they've seen before.

Though they share very few scenes together Niven and Hunter have electric chemistry with one another. Niven, ever the model of unflappable British wry humor delivers his lines with expert precision. "I love you, June. You're life, and I'm leaving it" he signs off as his plane goes down. Hunter on the other hand is all big emotion, but never veers into cloying obnoxiousness. Livesey as Dr. Reeves orates with confidence and quiet power in his big moments though his performance here can't compare to the absolute masterwork in the Archers later film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.
The film compliments its rich storytelling and splendid performances with exquisite and creative production values. The film's alternate title, Stairway to Heaven is in evidence as a massive escalator is used at several points in the film as a passage-way between heaven and Earth. This escalator appears infinite in scope and deftly conveys a genuine sense of other-worldliness in a seemingly very mundane, commonplace object. The Archers continuously play with perspective, space and time. The film is loaded with gorgeous push-ins and pull-outs. For example the heavenly host is assembled in court-room for judgment and the camera pulls back to convey more and more people in attendance that the courtroom become an amphitheater, then almost a stadium and then further still into a seamless matte painting of a vast series of similar stadiums in a vast heavenly mountainscapes. These epic backdrops provide an intriguing contrast to the very intimate love-story on display. Its a love story that fans of great love stories should rent as soon as possible.

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