For the first few minutes, I idly regret buying a ticket for what resembled an art student project with deliberately awkward cuts and out of focus pans. But this film’s whole conceit is the process of coming to terms: director and crew struggle to get to grips with their 3-D camera, artist struggles to find his voice after a seismic tragedy.
After this literally shaky start, it becomes obvious that this film is a masterful, carefully-constructed observation on grief. Nick Cave bemoans the bags under his eyes, but grief itself is invisible, although its effects leak out everywhere in words, gestures, weary body postures. Cave is ruthlessly analytical and unsentimental, although his sometimes oblique dialogue and lyrics expose the pain behind the tart wit. He is also noticeably perplexed and frustrated as his anchors of comprehension – songs, music, words – fail him and he is emotionally cut loose. It’s a brutally frank approach, which I found raw and real and oddly uplifting.
Arthur (Cave’s son, who died during the making of the album) and his death are only directly addressed about three-quarters of the way through the film. Up to then it is “the trauma”, “the thing that happened” – unnamed and perhaps unnameable. Yet Cave evidently consciously chose to continue with both album and film, with musical collaborator Warren Ellis providing a centre of essential stability. When Cave’s habitual refuges of words and music turn out to be unreliable companions, Ellis remains true and constant – and Cave’s gratitude is touchingly heartfelt.
Cave’s wife, Susie, lends an ethereal presence, seemingly fragile and brittle, yet clearly with deep inner reserves of an immense strength. It is almost shocking when Cave asserts that they have consciously decided to be happy. Yet it’s also the most generous possible gift to Arthur’s surviving twin, Earl.
The film delivers many emotional punches, reflecting the way grief is not a one-time shock, but an impact that keeps on crushing over and over: Earl’s appearance at the recording studio; the horribly prescient lyrics of Jesus Alone; the final shot of the cliff face, overlaid with Earl and Arthur’s glorious singing. It is manipulative, perhaps, but cinema is a medium of manipulation. And Cave’s sardonic voiceovers puncture the artifice: a sharp reminder of the separation between life and art.
This is a powerful and complex film. Of course, it stands alone as a promotional film for a painful album, a way to minimise media contact during what is still a relatively early stage of grief. It is a kind of catharsis, too and a declaration of love. Rather beautifully, it is also an intellectual dissection of the evolution of grief as the shaky cab interviews give way to fully-formed glossy song performances, and Cave’s raw, rough vocal fragments become entire songs. Somehow, a way is beginning to be forged through the chaos.
Remarkably, almost all the audience remained seated during the credits and when they left, they did so in a reflective silence. Such a thoughtful film deserved no less.