Billy Liar (1963)

24 05 2008

It’s quite funny that this came out the same year as Anderson’s This Sporting Life since this film represents a deviation for the “angry young men” genre, occasionally approaching a level of parody. Proclaiming it as an ancestor to modern quirky indie films may be an exaggeration but it does maintain a free-form style not unlike that in Altman’s more immediately groundbreaking Brewster McCloud. Still, this is a few years earlier so it is exceptionally evolved for its time, especially considering how dull and repetitive many of the British New Wave’s features were becoming. An enjoyable way to spend 90-some minutes but one shouldn’t expect substantial emotional resonance.

William Fisher is a lazy young man frustrated by the constant nagging of his parents, as well as the demands of his multiple girlfriends and his dull desk job as a clerk for a funeral home. He frequently escapes from reality to the country of Amborsia, a dream in which he is the prime minister. His optimism carries over to some of his real life experiences as he attempts to become a screenwriter in London. However, it is clear that he is over his head and in the mean time, he meets Liz, the only girl who seems to understand him and the only girl he seems to have genuine feelings for. They plan to escape to London and start a life together but William feels attached to his “boring” lifestyle and can’t fully make up his mind.

While well-regarded for its strange comedic sensibility, even more is written about the poignancy in Billy Liar. At the risk of giving the final sequence away, I must say that it is a very emotionally relevant decision made by the film’s protagonist. He ultimately resists the change in his life that he is so eager to facilitate. While it is disappointing to see William run away from the beautiful Julie Christie, it also communicates something deeper, in retrospect, that I think every human can relate to in some form. Even if we despise our current way of living, we are still attached to its rigorous flow.

Now, this is probably giving the film too much credit. It basically goofs around for ninety minutes and tries to deliver something profound within the closing sequence. The rest of the film plays about in a much more inconsequential but equally riveting manner. The self-consciously “serious” finale is a bit jarring, though, in spite of Schlesinger’s best attempts to have it play in with the rest of William’s fantasies. It’s almost impossible not to think of Brewster McCloud and its finale, which tries similarly attempts to be poignant but pulls it off in a way that corresponds with the rest of the film’s silly, carefree tone.

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