A few weeks ago, I watched a small French indie film, Willy 1er (Ludovic and Zoran Boukherma, 2016). Billed as a comedy, I find that at its core, the film is about loss and dearth. It’s about the loss that death brings screeching around the corner of your life, crashing into you headlong, and forcing you (limping and bloodied) to take notice. And it’s about the dearth of social connections born (that is, suffered) by society’s marginalized, almost like some sadistic sociological experiment that investigates how many robust relationships can be snipped away before The Human Subject simply goes mad.
Daniel Vannet stars as both the title character and his twin brother, Michel. The brothers are corpulent, middle-aged men, mentally disabled, and living at home with their parents. They both work at blowing leaves and other yard maintenance at a local park, and Willy loves to watch Michel “make donuts” with his car by spinning round and round in the same direction. It is a simple life. We have to suppose it was too simple for Michel. One day he hangs himself.
Willy takes notice of this death by finally resisting his parents’ counsel. “I’ll move to the city,” he says, “buy a scooter, get an apartment, find some mates, and you can stuff yourselves!”
He does as he threatens. His mates are not, perhaps, the best choices, but Willy I is oblivious to social nuance. At his new job at a grocery store, he meets Willy II, a queer, and it takes Willy I a long time to befriend Willy II and then to understand why his “mates” don’t accept this newcomer to the group. Willy I and Willy II are a different sort of twin. Their shared name only draws viewer attention to the ways in which they share an affectscape of isolation and desperation, and how they both cling stubbornly to small, even negligible, threads of certain identity.
What really blew me away, however, is how the Boukherma brothers generate ghosts as the affective correlates of the two Willys’ grief. A transparent Michel appears outside Willy I’s window, or stands beside him in the road. The ghost conveys the way in which death is carried physically, relationally, and bodily by the one who grieves. We see how that spirit-presence is only sometimes present, even while the grief-work is persistent.
I wish I could find an image of the other ghost. Here is the scene of his arrival. Willy I is finally telling Willy II about his brother’s death. He talks of a suicide he can’t believe in because he can’t fathom it. It doesn’t make sense, he says. Willy II understands. He tells Willy I his own story, how five years ago he lost the boyfriend he’d lived with for four years. The boyfriend had been a cop, but the death was just a stupid accident. Something went wrong with the car. It doesn’t make any sense, he says, twinning Willy I’s words. The ghost of the boyfriend–the name is James, I think–shows up and looks tenderly down on Willy II. Willy I asks him if he’s ever gotten over it. No, Willy II says. You learn to live with the loss; that’s all. It doesn’t go away.
At the very end of the film, Michel’s spirit sidles up to Willy I on the street and chats with him. We see a ghostly car pull up, and Michel says, “Well, I have to go.” Words cannot transmit very well what happens here, but it’s as if in watching Michel’s ghost drive off in the car, we see Willy I’s grief drive down into his soul.
I’ve never seen a film treat loss and social dearth with such care and loveliness. The film is billed as a comedy (can you believe it?) but to me, its backbone is formed by these ghosts. We are haunted by losses we each carry in agonizing solitude, no matter how many times we tell the story; and yet, telling the story saves us by its salving connection. Especially for those society has already, with a thousand small snips, pushed to the margins, friendship becomes the material nourishment for learning to live with senseless loss.