‘A Matter of Life and Death’ shows us two broken utopias. The most obvious one is heaven; a perfect machine that cares for all who enter it. Stress and shock are balmed on entry. Enmities are forgotten. Grief seems not to exist. There’s even cricket on the radio.
But it’s a fragile utopia; it can be broken by something as predictable as fog over the channel. Lost in the weather, a collector of souls misses his target, allowing the film’s protagonist to stay alive beyond his time, and fall in love.
As ever, it’s only when the utopia is broken that the drama can begin. The restoration of utopia means the breaking of hearts. How can the two be reconciled? They can’t, and so utopia remains perfect by admitting the possibility of its own imperfection.
What’s interesting is the implicit cause of that break. It’s the first mistake in a thousand years or so. Fog, one assumes, wouldn’t normally have such a catastrophic impact on the collection of the dead.
But, as the film tells us, this is an unusual night; there has been a thousand bomber raid over Europe – and, for every bomber, thousands upon thousands of deaths.
And so the film begins as the machineries of Heaven – overloaded by the vast quantities of souls they presumably have to capture – creak and break apart. The film presents as a comedy, but buried beneath it is buried vast tragedy; the dead lost to world war.
Utopia hasn’t been broken by a mistake. It’s been broken by us, pushing and pushing at it until that mistake becomes inevitable.
Oh, and what’s the second broken utopia? It’s this world, broken by loss – an emotion and an action that the film absolutely and rigorously represses.