"To have walked God's green acre for just a little while is such a gift. I didn't know that."—Mel Howard
Death: A Love Story is Michelle Le Brun's tribute to her husband, and the courage and love he displayed in the final months of his life. Mel Howard had a long career in film that included acting (Hester Street), producing (Reynaldo and Clara), and assistant directing (Oliver's Story). He also held prominent positions in film education, including Founding Associate Director of the American Film Institute, head of New York University's graduate film school, and chairman of Boston University's film school. He'd been married to Michelle Le Brun, a teacher and aspiring performer, for only two years when he was diagnosed with a liver tumor. Le Brun's film—culled from videotape footage shot home movie-style by the couple, presumably without the prior intent of making a film—is an intriguing blend of mundane details and lyrical excess.
We watch as the couple consults with doctors; considers second opinions; holds on the telephone for insurance company bureaucrats; tries all manner of alternative medicines, both reasonable and mildly kooky; and, in what can probably be considered the piece's central conflict, agonizes over the pros and cons of chemotherapy and a liver transplant, which may or may not save Howard's life but are certain to erode the quality of his remaining days if death is unavoidable. These moments of grounded realism are set against passages of lyrical narration, recitations from Le Brun's journal entries during her husband's life-and-death struggle that, while honest, are more consciously arty but less artful than when the film is focused on the mundane. It's not that the passages are maudlin in any way, nor are they false, but in-the-moment observations in a journal don't always make for the best voiceover. The narration feels particularly over-the-top near the end of the film when, because Le Brun only used an audio tape recorder to capture Howard's thoughts during his final stay in the Intensive Care Unit, her journal entries and his final words are set to clumsily symbolic montages of flowers and water and fire. In the end, there's more profundity to be found watching a married couple unsure whether to laugh, cry, or wring the customer service agent's neck because their insurance company has failed to process a policy check and chemotherapy can't start until the check goes through, than there is in free verse journal entries pontificating on the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual experiences of death. And the unintended revelation of that simple truth is probably enough to recommend the film.
Shot with a consumer-grade video camera, Death: A Love Story looks about as good on DVD as one could reasonably expect. Grain levels and color saturation vary. There are rampant source limitations, but little in the way of pixelation or artifacting that would indicate a shoddy transfer. The picture looks as good as the source allows. Shot compositions are nowhere near textbook, of course, but that only adds to the sense of the film as a highly subjective and personal document, especially since much of what we see is from a Michelle's-eye-view, so to speak. Sure, it's visually amateurish, but a slick production of this subject matter would only feel cheap and exploitative. The fact that the program is presented on a DVD for public consumption, yet feels entirely earnest, is something of an artistic achievement, I imagine.
The stereo audio is surprisingly good considering most of it was recorded with the camera-top microphones standard on any family-owned video camera. Isolated problematic moments are subtitled for clarity.
The disc contains a deleted-scenes segment that runs 28 minutes, consisting of raw home video footage of Mel's and Michelle's wedding and reception, as well as Mel's Los Angeles and Boston University memorial services. There is also a 10-minute segment from Indie Select, a show about independent filmmakers produced by WGBH, Boston's PBS station. The segment presents a sit-down interview with Le Brun in which she discusses the genesis of the film, audiences' responses to it, and her personal conflict over the prospect of treating the movie as a piece of commerce.
One can also play the movie's jazz guitar score in isolation, which is, honestly, sort of an odd supplement. Finally, there's a small photo gallery, cast and crew biographies, and a resource guide for hospice and palliative care services.
Death: A Love Story doesn't quite come together as a satisfying piece of cinema. To its credit, it is neither the physically explicit examination of dying, nor the sappy paean to lost love one might expect. Whatever its faults, its best moments deliver a surprising and simple honesty that make the picture worth a rental.
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