My grandmother used to read the obituaries in the paper. I once asked why she and my parents read something so sad. Dad would joke it’s to make sure none of them are listed yet. Grandma would cackle and mom would sigh, and they’d carry on. Grandma lived alone by then, as grandpa had died some years earlier. When she eventually passed, I saw her apartment one last time at the wake. It felt strange, alien, no longer like something I knew. With the people we knew and loved no longer there, everything lacked context. It raised the question: can what we leave behind tell a story about us to those that come after?
Just two kilometers away, across the gardens on Koskelantie is Sirkka-Liisa’s former apartment. Sirkka-Liisa isn’t there anymore and hasn’t been for years. She left one day in 2012 to visit the hospital and never returned. The apartment eventually sold to director Elina Talvensaari. During that time it had remained untouched after her death. Everything still in its place and with no family to collect it, Talvensaari became the de facto owner of a life lived. Unable to throw away the last memories of a person, Talvensaari instead sets out to find out who Sirkka-Liisa was when she lived.
LADY TIME unfolds like a mystery film as Talvensaari uncovers old family trees that reveal a vast lineage filled with notable names and achievements. These are Important People remembered by history. At the very bottom, where the tree ends, is Sirkka-Liisa. Nothing comes after her, and nothing ever will.
The further the investigation goes, the clearer her portrait becomes. We visit a museum dedicated to Sirkka-Liisa’s grandparents family home. Letters from relatives long gone fill in gaps of sullen childhood years, and old photographs paint us an image of a world gone by. By the time we know where Sirkka-Liisa came from, Talvensaari guides us through the decades filled with hardship and love until the very end. Sirkka-Liisa serves in the war, marries the love of her life and together they travel the world until death parts them. If there ever was a villain in a story like this, it is time itself.
Talvensaari has crafted an exceptionally touching film. It takes a sensitive and difficult subject and manages to avoid histrionics and hyperbole. There is a deep melancholy that courses in its veins as we eavesdrop through time. One of the toughest moments is right in the beginning: Talvensaari packs away what’s left of Sirkka-Liisa. Her life fits in some plastic bags lined up in a hallway. Its an image so powerful I had to look away. Equally hard are the visits to the graves which Talvensaari has been able to locate. Just two rows over from Sirkka-Liisa are my grandparents. Helsinki is very small, and very big at the same time.
LADY TIME doesn’t ask what comes next because what brought us to this point is far more interesting. It is devastating to realize that any life can end alone without anyone to comfort you. I can’t help but wonder can memories of others fill that hole in any way.
Even more than that, it’s a vital time capsule of a world where life was documented completely differently. My life can be split into an exact point where old Polaroids turned digital. When the servers go down, will there be any sign that I lived at all? It made me ask myself what will my life look in sixty years, if I’m still here. Who will I weep for, and who for me? By knowing of Sirkka-Liisa, Talvensaari helps us know ourselves.
It wouldn’t be accurate to say we learn intimately who Sirkka-Liisa was. That’s simply not possible with the material at hand. Her personality, beyond a few letters, remains a mystery to time. But what Talvensaari has accomplished is the next best thing. Her delicate and intimate portrait is an emotional bridge to the deceased that allows us to collectively share a memory. Does that bring peace to the dead or to us, the film doesn’t say. Perhaps both. After all, funerals are for the living, and the women in Sirkka-Liisa’s family (as we find out in letters) all faced the end matter-of-factly. There is a strange admirability in that.
During the film I kept wondering how Sirkka-Liisa’s life would be presented had it been a movie. It has all the elements and quiet triumphs straight out of an Aki Kaurismäki story. There is warmth and sorrow as if Ingmar Bergman had made it. Or perhaps an epic flowing through the ages like told by Terence Malick. Yet they’d all feel constricting and limiting to encapsulate it all. It is, simply put, a life.
Finns are called cold and morbid due to our attitude regarding life and death. LADY TIME proves otherwise. Eternity doesn’t scare us, for we are here now, and what a gift that is to experience.