Last night, Dad and I watched Still Alice and I was totally destroyed by the film. A friend of ours lent us the copy and said that, while Julianne Moore was really good, it isn’t anything we haven’t seen from her before, and that, in the end, the movie wasn’t that good.
I don’t know what she was talking about because I thought Julianne Moore was absolutely terrific, finding the very subtle nuances of the breaking down of someone’s life through the effects of Alzheimer’s and I thought the film was really, really good.
The film, about a 50-year old brilliant college professor, begins to suffer from early on-set Alzheimer’s disease and slowly starts to see her life unravel right before her. The film follows her as she begins to struggle with holding on to all that she knows — including language — while the people around her, her loved ones, struggle with aftershocks of seeing someone they love deteriorate.
The movie carefully builds up Alice Howard (Julianne Moore) and then the moment the first symptoms of her memory loss kicks in, I start crying. Tears start falling down my face and it doesn’t stop until the film ends.
I was fucking mess.
At first, I was taken by the sudden helplessness of her situation. This intelligent, strong person slowly losing bits and pieces of herself, and then as the movie progresses, she starts losing chunks. This is punctuated by the fact that her family struggles with holding on and the helplessness of how to deal with this situation.
It broke my heart.
And of course, being the self-centred asshole that I am, I brought it back to me. And while this is a lot worse than HIV, I could relate to the helplessness and the panic that Julianne Moore so eloquently evoked with her body, her facial expressions, the tone of her voice. It hit me so hard, how real the film manages to capture this absolute feeling of dread that your own body is trying to wipe out everything there is about you and it forced the tears out stronger and with more ferocity than I could control.
I was blowing my nose on my shirt because I didn’t want to stand up to get a tissue, I tried to hold back sobbing but it ended up getting out louder and I was just so scared that my Dad would make fun of me because if he did, I might’ve just lost it.
I know the film is about Alzheimer’s disease and this woman’s struggle but the film resonates, I believe, with every person who is struggling and/or suffering from a debilitating illness that also tends to rob the person of his or her identity. And, to be honest, HIV does that. It can rob a person of who he is and can take over. It blankets us that what they see first is the disease before the person and we have to fight, desperately, to try and push out from that and be treated as a person first and then, later, as a person with a medical condition.
I don’t think I’m articulating this very well. But sometimes, it’s all that a person living with HIV becomes about — How do you feel? What meds are you taking? How did you find out? How did you tell your family and friends?
I understand that there’s concern there but it has the tendency to appear that it is the bulk of who I am and what is most interesting about me — and honestly, I don’t think it is. I’m far more interesting than being a person who happens to be living with HIV. I think being a person living with HIV compounds and enhances the interesting nature of my life, but these questions sort of makes it all about that. And that can damage the sense of self that PLHIVs are trying to rebuild.
I don’t mind when I am asked that from friends and family. They’ve earned the right to ask that question. But from strangers, from people I have just met — it can break a person down. And I feel that it is a challenge for me because I have to be honest about my status because I’m one of the few people who can be honest and open about it and, hopefully, make this no longer an issue for everybody else.
But watching Still Alice, I realise how it has lasting effects and that I do have to spend time alone trying to rebuild my sense of self and to psych myself up to be more of who I am so that they see beyond my HIV positive status.
I really couldn’t stop crying when I was watching that film. So many correlations with my life — slowly losing grip of who I am even though I was surrounded by so much love and support and even respect — and how my life had to change in not-so-subtle ways just to be able to continue moving on from day-to-day. Of course, I feel awful because what a person with Alzheimer’s has to deal with is far worse and far more frightening than what I have to go through — I can still function, I can still work — but the film manages to grasp that feeling and telegraph it through the screen that I couldn’t help but relate and feel a sense of sadness on my own situation.
Julianne Moore was magnificent in that film. The direction was superb. I felt that the denouement of the film over-extended itself and it could have ended just a few scenes earlier, but that’s just nitpicking, really. It did what it had to do and it told the story it had to tell. It was very, very moving for me.
It doesn’t help that I’m at a fragile place right now. Maybe I saw the movie just at the right time. But I don’t know if I can watch that film again just to be sure if it’s as good as I am saying it is now. I think I saw what I needed to see and that’s enough for the meantime.