We obviously have a long way to go before we can deal with death in anything approaching a sensible fashion," the French journalist Marie LeLay (Cécile De France) declares late on in Clint Eastwood's new film, Hereafter. She has had a near-death experience during a tsunami in Indonesia. Her reaction to that experience baffles and alienates her colleagues. They can't understand why a hard-headed reporter has begun to talk and think about death in a manner that seems to them flaky and mystical.
Discomfiture and embarrassment in the face of death is something that film-makers have often felt too. Obviously, death is not ignored. In action flicks, cop dramas, war films and Westerns, the death count is often enormous. Terminal-illness melodramas, in which stars manage to die without ever smudging their make-up, are still made in abundance. Horror movies are nothing if not morbid. However, very few of these films are actually about death.
Eastwood's Hereafter is unusual in that death is the starting point. The bravura opening, in which locals and holidaymakers get caught up in a tsunami, evokes memories of Irwin Allen disaster movies of the 1970s. Those films, though, were all about a battle for survival. Craggy-jawed American heroes like Gene Hackman or Steve McQueen would always help lead victims of the inferno or earthquake to safety in the final reel. Eastwood's film offers no such consolation. Those who survive do so only by luck. They then have to cope with their guilt and confusion at what they have come through.
Hereafter is likely to prove a very disconcerting experience for some of Eastwood's fans. The 80-year-old auteur's new feature is a very long way removed from the world of Magnum Force and The Outlaw Josey Wales. Instead of a vigilante or a cop lifting a gun, we have Matt Damon as a blue-collar American lifting the hands of bereaved men and women and seeing into their souls.
Much of Hereafter is set in London. Key scenes take place at an Alexandra Palace book fair where Derek Jacobi (playing himself) is reading extracts from Charles Dickens. We see Damon traipsing round the Charles Dickens museum in Doughty Street. One plot strand, involving twin boys living on an inner-city council estate with their drug-addicted mother, and trying to keep one step ahead of the social services, sees Eastwood venturing into British social-realist territory, doing a Loach or a Leigh.
There is no distancing irony here. The film addresses psychic phenomena in a sincere way. There are wry montage sequences showing fake mediums, and mountebanks preying on the credulity of the bereaved. However, the film also shows characters seemingly communicating with their loved ones beyond the grave. At his age, and with his reputation, Eastwood doesn't seem in the slightest concerned that some viewers may think he is turning into a latter-day Doris Stokes. Hereafter demands a major suspension of disbelief, but deals with death and bereavement in a far more intelligent way than most mainstream movies.
The film was scripted by a British writer, Peter Morgan. It is in a very different register from Morgan's earlier work like The Deal, The Queen, Frost/Nixon or The Damned United, all based on real characters and events. The structure is akin to that of the screenplays of Mexican writer Guillermo Arriaga ( Babel, 21 Grams) in which the lives of different protagonists living in different environments, often many thousands of miles apart, are drawn together. To its critics, this "butterfly-effect" approach to screenwriting seems deeply contrived: it is just too convenient that one character's actions will have a ripple-effect that reaches across continents, it's a ruse for screenwriters to tie together different narrative strands that don't seem linked at all. However, when such stories are deftly handled, they can be both illuminating and very moving. Morgan wrote the Hereafter screenplay after the death of a close friend.
"He died so suddenly. So violently. It makes no sense," Morgan recalls. "His spirit was still alive around us, at his funeral I was probably thinking what everyone else was: where has he gone? We can be so close to somebody, know everything about them, share everything with them, and they're gone and suddenly we know nothing."
Morgan's remarks chime with what Arriaga told me when I interviewed him at the time of The Burning Plain, his debut feature as a director. "My identity is constructed by the people I love – by the people around me. Each time one of them dies, part of my identity is broken and lost. I am obsessed with how that loss affects my own identity. We live in a society obsessed with repressing death."
The film has received a mixed response in the US, where it was released in the autumn. Certain critics were clearly wrong-footed by the director's turn toward the uncanny.
You can see why the project attracted Eastwood. He is coming toward the end of his career. Two years ago, after he made (and starred in) Gran Torino, he declared that he would stop acting, although he would continue to direct. He has nothing left to prove to anybody. It seems apt that, at this stage, he should choose to take on a film that allows him to contemplate mortality.
Hereafter sees Eastwood working at a different tempo and in a different locale than in any of his previous films. This may not be Eastwood at the height of his powers but he remains a master storyteller. It is instructive to compare Hereafter with another recent American film about death, John Cameron Mitchell's Rabbit Hole. This features a bravura performance from Nicole Kidman as a suburban mum desperately trying to cope after her four-year-old son in killed. Rabbit Hole is well made and brilliantly acted, especially by Kidman. Nonetheless, it lacks the rawness and emotional punch that Eastwood's film carries, for all its flaws and digressions.
Film-makers and their audiences have always had an ambivalent relationship with the subject of death in movies. We all relish a good screen-death. Elderly men still talk of their childhood trauma in seeing the death of the mother in Bambi (1942). One of the biggest money-spinners of the 1970s was the film adaptation of Erich Segal's Love Story, with the beautiful Ali MacGraw dying of cancer to the accompaniment of lachrymose music.
At the same time, film-makers seem terrified of addressing the illness, pain and squalor that often goes hand-in-hand with dying, or of assessing its effects on those who remain. "The Long Goodbye," an upcoming season of films at the BFI focusing on death at the movies, underlines how evasively mainstream cinema treats it.
Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers (1972) (part of the BFI season) is often cited as one of the few films that deals truthfully with death. It shows a 37-year-old woman (Harriet Andersson) raddled with cancer. As she dies, her sisters watch over her and bicker among themselves. The dying woman's agony is evident. So is the fear and distaste it induces in those around her. She screams, hits herself, tries to vomit. There is an uncanny scene after the death in which the woman briefly seems to come back to life.
The brutal honesty of Cries and Whispers owes much to Bergman's observations of death in his own family. He always had the ability and coldness to hone in on the tell-tale detail. For example, in his autobiography, when he describes the death of his mother and seeing her corpse, he can't get an image, of the Band-Aid that was still on her finger, out of his mind.
Bergman's musings on death were also heavily influenced by a film he saw as a teenager and would watch again and again at regular intervals throughout the rest of his life: Victor Sjostrom's The Phantom Carriage (1921). Sjostrom shows the Grim Reaper, complete with scythe, on his rounds, collecting his harvest of suicides, drowning men and victims of illness. The storytelling is wildly melodramatic, but terrifying, too, in its portrayal of death as an implacable but arbitrary force.
Almost as oppressive as the Grim Reaper himself is the bureaucracy that surrounds death in contemporary Western societies. Certain films have satirised this aspect of dying. Romanian director Cristi Puiu's The Death Of Mr Lazarescu was a bleakly funny account of an elderly man's epic journey around the Bucharest hospital system in search of treatment. Wherever he goes, he is turned away. He is an old drunk and the system simply isn't prepared to cater for him.
In his book The Hour of Our Death, the French social historian Philippe Ariès distinguishes between attitudes toward death in the Middle Ages and in the contemporary world. For "we moderns, who have banished death from daily life," he argues, sudden death is considered a source of extreme fascination and regret. We feel obvious and immediate sympathy for the victims, who've died so unexpectedly. This is the opposite to the mindset in the Middle Ages, when sudden death was viewed as "ignominious and shameful." It didn't matter that the dead were innocent. The very fact that their ends had been so abrupt was seen as destroying "the order of the world."
"A sudden death was a vile and ugly death," Ariès writes. "It was frightening, it seemed a strange and monstrous thing that nobody dared talk about."
By contrast, a "tame death" was regarded as natural and commonplace. Death happened in public. There was no fear of it. Anyone was allowed to witness the last sacrament being taken.
In cinema, death is very seldom "tame" or accepted with resignation. Sudden death is fetishised and even celebrated. Film has the ability to capture the very moment of death. This is what drives the psychopathic killer in Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960) who murders women and tries to preserve on film the very instant that they die. It's the same instinct which leads the Zapruder film footage of the assassination of President John F Kennedy to be played again and again.
The very morbid Leonard Schrader-produced documentary The Killing of America (1980) compiled newsreel footage of assassinations and random killings caught on camera. As Schrader made clear, there were plenty of killings to choose from – at the time the film was made, there was, reportedly, an attempted murder in the US every three minutes, and a murder victim every 20 minutes. Unsurprisingly, The Killing of America struggled to find distribution. However, it highlighted a paradox. Although we may live – as Arriaga puts it – in a society "obsessed with repressing death", images of death are all around us.
Jean-Luc Godard's Week End (1967) gleefully introduced imagery of violence and death into a film about a chic middle-class French couple. Car accidents, rape, murder and cannibalism were all thrown into the mix. At the time the film was made, footage of the Vietnam War was seen on TV every night. Godard's conceit was to transplant this apocalyptic imagery into bourgeois France. When death is all around you, you can't ignore it in the same way as when it is simply something happening on the other side of the world on a TV screen. Audiences don't want to think about death or to consider that their governments may be involved in inflicting it on people in far-flung places. Godard confronted them head-on with images of death.
It's questionable what can really be achieved by showing audiences images of death. At the end of the Second World War, Billy Wilder directed an American propaganda film called Death Mills (1945). The idea behind the film was to confront the defeated German people with visual evidence that "behind the curtain of Nazi pageants and parades, millions of men, women and children were tortured to death – the worst mass murder in history."
Wilder had proposed that German civilians should not receive their food stamps unless they watched the film first – and it had to be certified that they had seen it. This proposal didn't work at all. "They [the Germans] couldn't cope with it. He [Wilder] told me people just left the screening or closed their eyes. They didn't want to see it. It was too much," Wilder's friend Volker Schlörndorff recalls. The film-makers themselves felt it was indecent to show such "unbearable" imagery. Wilder would never talk about the film in interviews.
Of course, debates about the ethics of showing mass death on screen are a long way removed from the preoccupations of Clint Eastwood's Hereafter. This is an intimate and very closely focused film about a group of characters dealing with the death of others. Damon is the psychic "cursed" by his ability to communicate with the dead. De France is the traumatised woman trying to make sense of her own brush with death. Then there is the boy who has lost someone very close to him and is desperate to re-establish a connection. There are some clunky and very cornball moments along the way, but the bravery of the film lies in its matter-of-fact approach to what seems to be such outlandish subject matter. Hereafter isn't a supernatural drama in the vein of The Sixth Sense, with a grandstanding final-reel revelation. Eastwood's aims are more modest. In its own idiosyncratic fashion, his film confronts themes that other film-makers have generally steered away from addressing directly, either because they think it is too morbid or too silly. This is also the point that the BFI season is trying to make: death is always present in cinema.
There are few movies in any genre that don't at least touch on death, but they tend to do so only in passing – either to crank up the emotions or to drive the plot. In Hereafter and a handful of other films (some of which are screening in the BFI season), it is, for once, right in the foreground.
'Hereafter' opens on 28 January. The Long Goodbye: A Cinematic Memento Mori runs from 1 to 29 January at BFI Southbank, London SE1 (www.bfi.org.uk)