Ray & Liz
Ray & Liz is an acerbic, autobiographical tale of life in a sordid flat in Thatcher’s England. Its miserable Midlands locale is made even rougher by a chain-smoking mother, a brew-swilling father, and two children left to their own devices.
Smeared with a level of surrealism, Richard Billingham’s film feels at times like a half-remembered dream. There’s a stench to the surroundings as we meet a bed-bound man swilling some dark, fetid liquid from plastic bottles. It’s Kafkaesque, this jail-like room with its lacy curtain and stark light finding its way inside past the stains on the window. We soon flash back to a slightly more hospitable era, where the parents are at least outwardly behaving in socially appropriate ways.
The origins of the film lay with a photo exhibition by Billingham that showed images of his alcoholic father, nicotine-stained mother, and the brother who was taken away by Child Services. Twisting this narrative into a cinematic frame results in a movie that’s often quite discomfiting, but engaging throughout.
The disparate parts of the film – a spent Ray locked in his room, a younger version of the two boys, and a later sequence where things truly unravel – combine to form a kind of triptych, where each facet reflects on the others. It’s a hard vision to take in. The stark 16mm imagery shot by Daniel Landin gives the piece a highly nostalgic, documentary-like feel.
It’s not always easy to follow what’s going on at any moment in the narrative, but as a whole it’s a moving, haunting look at the travails of this family and the quotidian horrors that shaped them. On the one hand, the film feels almost voyeuristic, as if we too are watching this suffering in the same way the young boy plays with presumably perturbed mollusks. On the other hand, there’s so much specificity to the telling that it feels somehow aggrandizing to the characters, making their regular lives and struggles near mythic.
Ray & Liz takes an experimental bent and crafts something brutal and uncompromising. It’s to Billingham’s credit that he doesn’t ever lose the audience in favor of meandering or pretentious nonsense. He focuses instead on the unsettling nature of the images rather than being needlessly oblique. The film is deeply inscrutable at times, but it comes from a child-like sense of both fascination and repulsion, a kind of co-dependent connection to the events that take place
A moving piece requiring much of its audience, Billingham manages to make a film that’s challenging yet compelling. Ray & Liz won’t work for many, but for the patient and the open-minded, it’s a kitchen-sink family drama like few others.