Sometimes it takes a peculiar turn of events to shine a new light on a film that did not hit me at all the first time I watched it. The more dramatic the events are, the more the film is able to dig its own way through me on the second time. And if the film manages to catch me off guard as well, it simply means that I did not have a clue before and that I was, once again, ignoring the brilliant capacity that cinema has to enter my life unexpectedly.
There is a lot going on with my family at the moment, but to put it briefly: a relative with health issues and another one without a job in a delicate moment. In the world of my family, reasoning together around a table on these problems is next to impossible, and if one is used to sit down and talk in order to better understand the situation, they are going to have a hard time getting honest replies and decent answers out of these mouths. Unless they are Steven Soderbergh, I guess.
Let Them All Talk (Steven Soderbergh, 2020)
In Let Them All Talk, Soderbergh captures the dynamics and the intricacies of different kind of relationships with the eye of the adult back after many years where they were born. Like that adult, Soderbergh’s camera observes the development of stories that are familiar and distant at the same time. The adult knows where and how these stories began, but it is actually the child in them that is remembering, and so the memories are vague and partly filled with the audacity of imagination. The adult has not followed the development of these stories if not remotely and by chance, and thus the intimacy with them is now lost. This feeling is strengthened by the position in which the viewer is constantly put by Soderbergh, a position where they think they know more than the characters, but it is a knowledge which does not inform them enough to derive neither the correct nor the wrong conclusions. Just like the adult that has to reacquaint with his family, the viewer needs time to process where the images are leading them to.
This is not to say that Let Them All Talk is out to play with our minds. Soderbergh shows more than he conceals, and the death of Alice, as shocking as it is, is in fact slightly anticipated by her anxiety. She desperately wants to reconnect with the most important people in her life, and yet we sense that there is more to it in this trip. Throughout the crossing on the ship she struggles to find the time and the emotional space to sit down and fix what went wrong in what seems like a previous life, but she is not ready to give up on her work and her swimming to do that, a sign that there is more at stake than a friendship here. The same is true for Tyler and his infatuation with Karen. As much as they build a bond on board, the reasons why it does not turn into a romance are on plain sight. Karen uses Tyler for her own ends at first, but as they get closer to each other they share and connect on a different level. Most of the time, say in a romantic comedy or a sit-com, this level is the prelude of a happy love story. However, Karen is not attracted to Tyler and she never suggests that she is. Tyler naturally falls for her, he takes the risk of a timid and messy confession, and Karen does not know how to react to that. We can only guess she realises that she must have given him the wrong impression, but the viewer is not entitled to enter the privacy of her emotions. Soderbergh hides only what is respectful to hide.
Furthermore, Let Them All Talk is not shy when it comes to humour, with its main target being the literary world, but again Soderbergh approaches the matter from a hide and seek angle. Alice makes fun of best-selling author Kelvin Kranz, despising the poor quality of his hugely popular books and laughing at his semi-automatic writing process. The fictional Kranz mirrors the likes of Wilbur Smith, a beloved writer in my family, and so I can relate to both Alice’s criticism and Susan’s appreciation. Whereas Wilbur Smith may not conquer my taste in literature, after decades he still is a staple in my parents’ house, and something of my passion for books must come from all those evenings with my parents on the sofa completely absorbed by his pages. This is one of the things Let Them All Talk is really good at. It dwells on mixed feelings while acknowledging the apparently simple fact that every situation is bound to be charged with emotions well beyond our reach. Its characters share a common background. Sometimes it works for them, and other times, it is set against them. They cannot assume friendship and family ties, however strong, to be the only means for their relationships to survive.
This is why Roberta is such an important character. She is not able to let go her belief that her life has been ruined by Alice’s most popular book. Roberta is sure that Alice used her and her life as the basis for the book, thus what she seems to be after is monetary compensation for all the troubles she had. However, right at the very end, when getting money out of the Alice’s death requires more effort on Roberta’s side, she lets go. Does she do it because she cannot be bothered to fight any more? Or has she finally realised that she, and only she, can press the button to put change in motion? I like to think that only she knows the answer, and I like to think that anyone facing the same decision would act differently. Like Kierkegaard said, humans are possibility, and within the possible everything is possible.