A movie that demands to be felt – a review

Anika Ullmann

Hazel Grace Lancaster (stunningly beautiful and talented Shailene Woodley) is obsessed with An Imperial Affliction, a book told by first-person narrator and cancer patient Anna. After Anna dies the story ends. Just like that. In the middle of the sentence. Hazel has to know what happens to those who survived. All attempts, though, to reach Peter van Houten, the author,have been without success. The reason for Hazel’s search for answers is as simple as sad.

She has thyroid cancer that has spread into her lungs and although she is relatively stable at the moment it seems clear that she will one day die of her illness. Anna’s story is to a certain extend her story.

One thing Hazel deeply dislikes is the cancer support group. Still, it is there that she now meets Augustus Waters (charming, 1,93 m tall, comforting, teddybear-like creature Ansel Elgort). Augustus had osteosarcoma, his right leg is missing, but is in remission now. Augustus does not hold back with his affection for Hazel and becomes her partner in their quest for reassurance that love is possible despite death and a short life can be meaningful.

No place for cynics

The first thing I see as I enter the cinema is a group of girls. All of them have been crying, one still is. The others are hugging her. I do not need to ask, which movie they have been watching. It is the one America has been shedding tears over for a week and the one I am going to watch now: The Fault in Our Stars.

The audience this evening is special already in so far, as they have found the only screening of the movie in English in the Frankfurt area. What really marks them as extraordinary as far as cinema audiences go, though, is their wast knowledge of the young adult novel the movie is an adaption of. Every time one of the book’s now famous quotes is spoken on screen someone in the audience is whispering the words together with the character who is saying them. Indeed, this evening is the end of a journey. It started with the announcement, that John Green’s successful book will be turned into a movie, went on with the first release of the trailer (watched by millions on YouTube) and the presentation of the soundtrack in the format of a mini concert aired on YouTube and found its conclusion here in the seats in the dark, tissues in hand. Sighs and excited giggles accompany the first seconds the title appears on screen and every one of Augustus’ winks and smiles after that. The audience is eager to celebrate this moment, to fall in love and to suffer. One thing is for sure: this is no place for cynics.

It is a good life

There are many things that make this movie great. One of them is the way the story intertwines its comments about adolescence with more universal themes. Sure, one can hardly ignore the youthful glow that surrounds Hazel and Gus whenever they look at each other. Much of the story’s sad atmosphere is based on the outlook that Hazel, though young and full of questions, will not have a long life. Hazel and Gus initially are very different, when it comes to questions of life and death, however. Gus likes stories about heroes. He dreams of being remembered while Hazel believes that oblivion is inevitable and there is no point to existence. It is between those two positions that the movie unfolds its philosophical superstructure.

In the movies most brilliant scene Augustus and Hazel visit the Anne Frank house. Behind them on the wall is written a quote by Anne Frank: “I long to ride a bike, dance, whistle, look at the world, feel young, and know that I’m free.” There are certain ideas connected to being a teenager. Freedom and a sense of possibility are part of them and we are being reminded of the fact, that this is what Hazle is being robbed of. In another room pre-recorded quotes by Anne Frank are played over the loud speaker: „At such moments, I can’t think about the misery, but about the beauty that still remains. Try to recapture the happiness within yourself.“ Here admist the memory of Anne Frank, Hazel gives into her feelings and finally kisses Gus. It is in scenes like this that the movie transcends the frames of the love story and turns into a philosophical inquisition into meaning making and mortality. The lovers demonstrate a principle: There is beauty in the present and value in celebrating existence. Even a short life can be a happy and significant, a good life.

Living with pain

In another, subtler, scene Hazel has just received an invitation to go to Amsterdam. She is so excited that she calls for her mother, who comes running into her daughter’s room with a bath towel wrapped around her. It is clear that the mother has instantly read her daughter’s shouting as a call for help or was at least immediately prepared that something bad might have happened. She would never admit that, though. Hazel’s parents try to give their daughter a sense of that one thing she knows is lost to her – futurity. In a short exchange on their last day in Amsterdam Hazel’s mother says, that they will just have to come back to the city one day and see more of it. To that Hazel remarks, that she should not be ridiculous.  It is that very thing, though, and here again the story shows its strengths, that Hazel wants for her parents, a future. This is the main reason for her interest in how An Imperial Affliction goes on after the narrator dies. She needs to know what happened to the other characters, to know that their lives went on. Her fear is not only dying but, as she calls it, being “a grenade” and destroying the lives of her parents when she does.

Gus‘ answer to Hazel’s concerns is as straightforward and romantic as is his characterization in general:  „It would be a privilege to have my heart broken by you“. It is one of the most profound messages of Greens story that living with the pain of having lost someone is not essentially something that people want to avoid, as it precedes having loved and known someone who was worth the pain his or her passing inflicted. There is only one way to deal with the void and that is leading a life that finds meaning in the relationships we have with each other. The movie pits this form of present against Augustus‘ dreams of becoming a hero, of entering a collective memory that somehow will grant him eternity. Telling a story about young people with cancer, teenagers who have to think about what to write into each others eulogies, brings these questions to the forefront. It is their lack of time, it seems, that makes them ask them louder and with more urgency than maybe adults would.

“Pain demands to be felt.” is one of the most famous quotes from An Imperial Affliction. It draws attention to the necessity to acknowledge emotions. One might very well adjust this idea to the movie itself. It is a story about life, about love and loss and it demands to felt. As this review shows, I am all in. Okay?

 

The Fault in Our Stars. Josh Boone. 20th Century Fox: 2014. Movie.

The Fault in Our Stars / Official Trailer. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ItBvH5J6ss. Last accessed 17.06.2014. Internetvideo.