Danish director Susanne Bier continues to bring the same middlebrow sensibilities to middle-class anxieties in "Things We Lost in the Fire", her first English-language film. Bier sets off on similar tracts by anchoring her story around a sturdy leading man, courtesy of a reliably intense performance by Benecio Del Toro. Following the terrifically compassionate "After the Wedding", this minor Bier effort that begins with the disintegration of a family unit can reasonably be called "After the Funeral", where loss and unity implausibly labour around each other to deny its characters closure.
Where Dogme kin Lars von Trier found equal measures of flaw and emotional entropy in both sexes, grounded in an arduously earthly world, Bier's vocation is ambiguous hope in an operatic dreamworld. Bier's preoccupation with putting her hyper-idealised men on pedestals while maintaining her women as needy wrecks is no less tempered here. The dead husband, Brian (David Duchovny) dies a valiant protector, has an immensely successful professional life, patiently loves his wife while being a dutiful father, and tops it off by being "loyal to a fault" to his drug-addled best friend, Jerry (Del Toro).
Reality of loss threatens to seep into Audrey's (Halle Berry) life when she has to pick up the pieces, comfort her two children, and fix up the damaged garage on her lonesome. She finds a remnant of his life by seeking out a relative acquaintance in Jerry to conceivably do what Brian would have wanted. Trading shelter for a man around the house, Audrey secretly aches for a non-romantic stand-in that results in the pair's wordless pas de deux around Brian's irreproachable spectre. The film allows us to intuit a level of antagonism between the two that sustains and validates the relationship.
Bier strives for an unconventional romantic tension. It's an attraction that isn't fueled by chemistry, but the need for two damaged beings to find solace in one another. Jerry reconfigures and sees himself as the family's new protector, taking over from what his best friend leaves behind - something he never thought he would have. Audrey sees Jerry's as the closest thing to Brian, that to wean Jerry of his addiction would be to keep some part of her husband alive.
Writer Allan Loeb's dissonant screenplay is shuffled like a pack of cards. The jerky temporal loop that elucidates Brian's death, his charity to Jerry and the aftermath come together to provide parallels and his actions' cause-and-effects in the two leads. The director's sharp use of close-ups for offhand actions - a hand caressing a earlobe, weary eyes connecting - capably compliments the detail-attentiveness and immediacy of Bier's hand-held shots and brings us closer to the emotional state of her characters by incising and delving into the frame.
As coolly as Bier's camera soars, her limitations of failing to venture out of her comparative comfort zone rarely capture the true impact of loss in a woman. Longing for a life lost is Audrey's constant badge and turns into Bier's cheap shot at drawing out the waterworks in her polished vision of the world. John Carroll Lynch is a welcome tragicomic distraction from its sudsy machinations as a henpecked financier neighbour, who's lonely in a gregarious rather than a withdrawn way, and strikes up a friendship with the newly domesticated addict.
Unconventionally, Bier makes it clear that any sort of romance between the two leads will be invariably strained considering the perfect marriage Audrey once enjoyed, and by accepting Jerry's analogy to Audrey on chasing the elusive high that came with his first jolts of heroin: "You chase that initial feeling when you can never get it back."