Ray & Liz ★★★½

“Ray & Liz” — the haunted and pungent debut feature by photographer Richard Billingham, who’s been dabbling in the form since the late ’90s — feels like watching someone painstakingly build a rusty time machine that only brings them back to their own rotten past. And to what end?

Billingham’s work has always been lauded for its lack of overt beauty; his most acclaimed pictures find his layabout parents cooped up inside the bleakest council flat in all of Thatcher-era Birmingham, the images striking for their deprivation and self-sufficiency. Rather than mine his home life for manufactured poetry, Billingham shot his family with an anthropological flare, as though he’d smuggled a camera into an animal enclosure that the bourgeois art world had only seen from the outside. (Billingham’s 1998 short “Fishtank” has nothing and everything to do with the similarly named Andrea Arnold film that would follow a few years later.)

In “Ray & Liz,” Billingham recreates his old memories (real or imagined) as though each moment were a shard of a broken mirror that he’s trying to piece back together with his bare hands. The result is a ripe and bloody act of self-reflection so personal that it can feel like Billingham made it only for himself — that he’s standing between us and whatever he’s smeared on screen. But the film, like Billingham’s photography, is all the more powerful for its refusal to tidy up, explain itself, or try to glom some kind of retroactive grace onto an impoverished existence that was defined by boredom and neglect. Through the right lens, a life can be appreciated like a landscape.

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