Mad Love: The Surrealism of the Supernatural Romantic Melodrama, Part Four

5. Art Cinema Variations, 2003-2011

Before I start, I should say that I’m especially aware of the spoiler-y nature of this entry. There were spoilers in previous entries, too, but perhaps because these films are relatively recent, and because I’ve been talking up Perfect Sense as a pleasantly surprising little film, I want to emphasize that I’m going to spoil these films for you if you haven’t already seen them: Perfect Sense in particular doesn’t make anything like as much sense as a part of this subgenre if you don’t know how it ends.

Now then.

As I’ve tried to show in previous entries, the supernatural romantic melodrama has on at least a few occasions been the basis of art cinematic variations: Orpheus and Wings of Desire are the ones I’ve mentioned, if the latter only in passing, when I wrote about City of Angels. That’s because I’d argue that Wings of Desire (unlike its Hollywood remake) is really on the borders of the supernatural romantic melodrama rather than a fully-fledged example. Damiel’s love for Marion is a central thread, but not one that dominates the film until the last half, and never in a way that is particularly melodramatic in its affect. Even if Wings of Desire is for me a peripheral case of the narrative vein I’m mining (as much as it’s also one of my favorite films), it does illustrate the basic dynamic of art cinematic variants on the supernatural romance: a more-or-less overt use of the romance plot as a primary figurative device to explore the filmmakers’ range of thematic concerns. Wings of Desire on the whole returns again and again to the public (memories, experiences, identities) versus private, and the abstract versus the concrete, and while these and other such oppositions are developed in various ways across the film, as it goes on, the Damiel/Marion relationship becomes their principal expression.

In this entry, I’m going to write about four films along an art-cinematic spectrum, from art cinema proper (radically challenging the norms of mainstream cinema) to arthouse cinema (by which I mean a niche-market cinema that makes some use of art cinematic techniques and strategies but in modified forms alongside more conventional kinds of storytelling) to Hollywood art cinema (“prestige” fare aimed at a mainstream audience but drawing on art cinema to a limited degree). The Story of Marie and Julien (2003) represents an art cinema version of the supernatural romantic melodrama; in their divergent ways The Fountain and Perfect Sense represent arthouse versions; while The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a Hollywood prestige film that verges on the art cinematic, in particular in the ways that the Benjamin/Daisy relationship serves as a vehicle for a more expansive, even philosophical set of concerns.

There’s been at least one other recent-ish arthouse film that has played with the supernatural romance- Jonathan Glazer’s Birth. In the end, though, it turns out to be a Scooby-Doo version of it: after teasing the audience with the idea of a relationship between a widow and a 10 year old boy who claims to be the reincarnation of her dead husband, it’s revealed that the actual situation is nothing of the sort (though the kid does appear to go into some sort of fugue state where he seems at moments to be genuinely convinced that he is the reincarnation of the husband, the question of how he knows so much is solved in very mundane terms). I gather that the script went through multiple drafts, and one wonders if this ending came out of those revisions; Jean-Claude Carriere is one of the credited writers, and one can easily imagine a draft by him at his most Bunuelian where the resolution would be quite different, and quite a bit more discomfiting. That’s not to say it’s an uninteresting film, though, and as a story of the intractability of grief in the face of an impending marriage, it anticipates Melancholia.

I have a somewhat limited range of experience when it comes to Jacques Rivette, a filmmaker who has always interested me in theory (based on descriptions of his films I read in James Monaco’s The New Wave when I was 12 or 13), but who only really began to fascinate me after rewatching Celine and Julie Go Boating last year (I’d seen it before, but found the idea of it more interesting than the actual film; watching it again after many years, I fell for it head over heels). Of all the nouvelle vague directors, though, Rivette has been particularly ill-served by home video formats. The bulk of the films I read about in Monaco are unavailable (L’Amour Fou, Out 1 and Out 1: Spectre; and for what it’s worth, the BFI DVD of Celine and Julie leaves a lot to be desired), while others are available only in France, sans anglais sous-titres (La Religuese, Duelle, Noirot). The most available Rivette titles are relatively recent, and most of them are still in my to-watch stack. So my perception of him, based on Paris Nous Appartient, Celine and Julie, La Belle Noiseuse, and now The Story of Marie and Julien (I saw Va Savoir too long ago to say anything about it), is still that he is one of the more forbidding new wave directors. His work is the least easily penetrated of all the Cahiers group: his films aren’t as based in genre as Truffaut or Chabrol; they’re not as flashy as JLG; and they don’t really have the same kinds of surface charms as Rohmer. He is also a filmmaker who has notably experimented with the long film, which in and of itself can be daunting for some (La Belle Noiseuse, about the making of a single painting, runs a mere four hours; the shortest film I’ve seen of his so far is 2 ½, though I know his most recent was a surprisingly brief 84 minutes; at the other end, Out 1 is just shy of 13 hours long). In their length and their reticence, their slowness to reveal themselves, they can require of viewers a kind of act of faith (reminiscent, in that sense, of watching A Brighter Summer Day): you have to trust Rivette, to go along with him in the belief that it will all pay off in the end.

That is certainly true of The Story of Marie and Julien. It opens in a park where Julien (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) sees Marie (Emmanuelle Beart), who he met at a party a year before; he has not seen her since, but still thinks about her. This is suddenly, violently revealed to be a dream; Julien then wakes up, and sees Marie in the street. They plan to meet later, and Julien proceeds to a rendezvous with Madame X (Anne Brochet), whom he is blackmailing. Though there is a clear differentiation between “dream” and “reality” here, the effect of starting in a dream and proceeding to the extraordinary coincidence of meeting Marie is disconcerting, wrong-footing the viewer right from the start. It seems odd, too, that Julien himself doesn’t seem to know Madame X’s name, which would seem to be a prerequisite for blackmail.

Marie meets Madame X, who is the first to realize Marie’s true nature.

Very slowly, Rivette reveals more about Julien, though never exactly why he’s involved in blackmail, given that, as Madame X herself points out, he doesn’t seem that hard up for money, nor does he seem like the criminal type. What we do see is that he repairs antique clocks from the home where he leads a largely confined, solitary existence with his cat, Nevermore (another oddly disconcerting note: the cat seems, at least early in the film, to be scared of the camera, and keeps staring at it; the effect is weirdly reflexive).

Julien, Nevermore, clock.

Julien and Marie meet, and meet again, this time sleeping together, but she remains oddly elusive, disappearing the next day. When Julien tracks her down, though, she agrees to move in with him. As Julien continues to blackmail Madame X and tinker on the gears of the clocks that fill the ground floor of his house, and the relationship deepens, Marie commences to remodel a room on the top floor, for reasons that aren’t explained at first. For quite a while, in fact: for it’s first half, the film seems slow even by Rivette’s standards, spending an inordinate amount of time on a relationship between a woman whose behavior doesn’t particularly make sense, and a man who for his part remains somewhat unsympathetic (it’s hard to work up much identification with a blackmailer, and Radziwilowicz is a stolid, charmless presence here).

Julien, Marie, clocks.

Except for excursions to meet Madame X, the action is confined to Julien’s house, which across the length of the film becomes a remarkably concrete and vivid space, such that a dynamic begins to emerge between the specificity of the house (and that cat, omnipresent, with a bell around its neck that constantly jangles), the abstraction represented by the clocks, and the mystery of Marie, who inexplicably pulls away from Julien at several key moments, going into her own world.

Duration, then, seems to function in part in relation to tactility, grounding the film in the physicality of this world to establish a phenomenal context for the fantasy elements which begin gradually to take over; Rivette is, I’d suggest, underestimated as a transcendental stylist. Rivette’s negotiation of the concrete and the ephemeral is further enacted in the remarkably erotic sex scenes (apparently unprecedented for Rivette), where the couple’s lovemaking is punctuated by dialogues where they take turns narrating elaborate sexual fantasies, their minds intermingling just as their bodies are.

The increasing domination of the fantastic is aligned to a gradual shift in focus, from that of the uncomprehending Julien to Marie herself. As the film shifts from his perspective to hers, the narrative becomes not only more supernatural, but also less of a mystery and more of a melodrama. Marie is revealed not as the noir-ish femme fatale one suspected she might be, and more as the very different kind of femme fatale that she actually is. The film is divided into four chapters: “Julien”, the opening chapter, ends with Marie moving in; “Julien et Marie” ends when Marie meets and is given a letter written by Madame X’s sister, Adrienne (Bettina Kee); “Marie et Julien” reveals that Adrienne is dead, and by its end that Marie is a ghost herself; and “Marie” finally answers the central enigma: Marie is indeed a ghost, but a living and insistently physical ghost (in interview, Rivette clarified that while a ghost, Marie is anything but a “phantom”- again, that insistence on the corporeal), and in remodeling the room at the top of the house, she is transforming it into the space where she killed herself. Rivette’s fascination with theatre comes into play here: Marie is turning the room into a kind of stage (it’s never an exact replica, but key features enabling the necessary series of actions on Marie’s part are put into place) on which she can replay the scene of her death, thus enabling her to move on from the physical plane. The room is both a physical reality, and an invocation of another space existing in Marie’s psyche: here again Rivette insists on the physical yet calls forth the transcendent. Marie is both acting out one reality (bringing the story of her and Julien to a conclusion, obeying the rules of her liminal existence) and performing another (reliving the emotional memory of her death by recreating it on this stage).

The more we learn about Marie, via Julien’s investigation of her past, the more the barriers between them begin to seem insurmountable, and the more pathos this realization produces. Julien, however, cannot let go of her, and indeed tries to kill himself to join her; they struggle and Marie’s wrist is slashed, though because she is dead, she cannot bleed (this was anticipated earlier in the film when she cut herself, bloodlessly, while remodeling).

Julien tries to stop Marie from killing herself- again.

Marie has warned him that he will forget her completely unless he lets her go, and now moves her hands over her face in a “mystery gesture” (which we have seen performed by Adrienne, and is one of several invocations of mysticism in the film, including a gaelic chant by which Marie emotionally possesses Julien) which renders her invisible to Julien and erases his memory of her.

Marie and the “mystery gesture.”

He can’t figure out how or why he’s cut himself. She watches him as he sleeps, and as her tears fall on her wrist, it starts to bleed. Julien wakes up, and sees Marie, but doesn’t know that she is the woman he loved. “Give it time,” she replies. After the length of the buildup (the gradual and piecemeal exposition), after the sense of impending doom and the pathos of a seemingly insoluble melodramatic situation, it’s a remarkably romantic ending, as if in its last moments the film takes flight. For a film that asks so much patience of its viewers in the first half, the reward is unexpected (an art film with a happy ending!), almost delirious, and, for me, washed away any vestiges of my initial resistance.

That ending, in its flight into pure romance, is also the climax of the film’s invocation of the transcendent through Marie’s story (which, again, is grounded in part in the shift of narrative focus and emotional center from Julien to Marie). Seen as a film more about her story than his, his blackmail can be said to be somewhat arbitrary, signifying perhaps material pursuit generally (while also incorporating an element of appearance versus reality that suits Marie’s arc), but whose clocks, insofar as they represent the problem of order and the Ideal in the material world, remain significant. All of this, too, is against the background of the insistent materiality of the house and the corporeality of the couple. Again, Rivette’s suggestions of theatricality are crucial here; in addition to the attic room as a stage set, dialogues between Marie and Julien are determinedly un-natural, performed to emphasize their written-ness, at some moments to the point of sounding like quotations. Theater here is intertwined with the concept of ritual: the mystery gesture (and its doubly significatory power in the narrative, as an expression of or means by which Marie “possesses” Julien, and as a signifier of the mystic), the gaelic chant, the enactment of the suicide all play into and off of the film’s theatricality. As wary as I am of making any fixed interpretation of a work by a filmmaker as subtle and complex as Rivette (and, as always, I’ve not read anything else on the film yet, and my take on it could be refined or overhauled by doing so), but I will offer a read of The Story of Marie and Julien as a supernatural romantic melodrama. In the end, if we accept ritual (and theatrical performance generally) as having a fundamentally figurative quality, then the film as a whole can be said to be a ritual enacting (a stage of) Romantic Love itself: the mystery of the lover (the partiality of how much we can ever know about them), the weight of the past on the way we conduct relationships, the sense of risk and obsession, the letting go and the acceptance that preface any lasting union.

If Rivette only very gradually reveals any kind of genre dimension to The Story of Marie and Julien, in a very different way (must! make! smooth! transition!) finally Darren Aronofsky leaves the generic status of The Fountain somewhat under-determined. It blurs the boundaries between science-fiction and fantasy, and to some extent between art and arthouse cinema (though of course it is much, much less demanding than the Rivette) as it oscillates between storylines in vastly divergent times and spaces. In the end, at least some of that oscillation is contextualized as a story (one being written and read) within the story of the film- but then, too, mise-en-abyme structures are classic art cinema territory. The Fountain opens on a Conquistador (Hugh Jackman) searching for the Tree of Life as a fountain of eternal youth for the Queen of Spain (Rachel Weisz), whose political position in under threat from the Inquisition.

Bald Future Tommy and the Tree.

Then it takes us to a bald man with a striking resemblance to the Conquistador, who is in a bubble with the Tree, floating in space; and finally to Tommy, a scientist, who is immediately established as the man in the bubble, but in a separate time-frame is on present-day Earth searching for a cure for cancer to save his wife, Izzie, who bears a similarly striking resemblance to the Queen. The initial disorientation that comes out of the juxtaposition of these narratives fades, to a point: the tale of the Conquistador is a story called “The Fountain” written by Izzie for Tommy (while this explains the status of the story of the conquistador, it also means that it is presented in a non-linear fashion, beginning in a flash forward to a late point in that narrative, which is only read by Tommy at a late point in the Scientist story; well into the film, he begins reading “The Fountain,” and at this point the Conquistador story is related in linear fashion). With the story, Izzie clearly means to convey to Tommy something about letting go, that she will live on in him in some way, always be with and within him even after she’s gone. Because of this, she wants Tommy to finish writing the story, but he can’t bring himself to do so. The culmination of this will take place in what is finally suggested to be the far future, with Tommy and the Tree (whose bark gives him eternal life) inside what is probably a spaceship, hurtling toward a dying star, Shebob, which for the Mayans of the Conquistador story represents the afterlife and rebirth. When Tommy accepts death as a fact, including his own, when he achieves some emotional enlightenment- when, in fact, he can let Izzie go- he can then “finish” her story, and his own.

Tommy, transcendent in the end.

Very near the end of the film, Tommy talks to Izzie’s apparition in the kind of expectation-reversing dialogue that recurs so often in these films: he says to her, “I’m going to die!” and both smile happily at this.

Tommy and Izzie.

The Tommy and Izzie storyline is the film’s center, emotionally, narratively, thematically, and melodramatically, incorporating unrestricted narration to generate pathos (Tommy hides the depths of his grief from Izzie in her last days), and a race-against-time plot (Tommy wants to use the bark from the tree to develop a cure for Izzie, but will he do so in time? He does not, but immediately after her death learns that the new solution works). It’s also the storyline in which Aronofsky most indulges his attraction to extreme emotional states; after Izzie dies, Tommy, sobbing uncontrollably, begins to tattoo himself with a fountain pen (as he will continue to do in the Bubble).

If indeed the bubble with the Tree and the bald Tommy is a spaceship, then the film is science-fiction; the Tree would still carry a suggestion of a higher power, but can be seen simply as a tree found in a rain forest that has unusual properties. But there’s never any explanation of how Tommy came to be in a Space Bubble with the Tree in the future, and while the filmmakers insisted in interviews that a spaceship could take the form of a bubble, that’s never explicit in the film itself. Indeed, the mandala-like patterns Tommy and the Tree Bubble pass through invoke the mystical as much as the cosmic.

We can, then, either take the events in the Bubble as the conclusion of an emotional drama partly enacted through the allegory of the Conquistador, or take the Bubble and the Conquistador as allegorical of Tommy’s grief over Izzie’s death. Either way, The Fountain is about Letting Go, and in this way is truly the arthouse version of Ghost– or perhaps the head movie version of Ghost. While the Tommy and Izzie narrative is engaging, ultimately it’s the visuals which distinguish the film, particularly at the Tree in the Conquistador story, and the Bubble traveling to the dying star in the future story.

The Tree as seen in the Conquistador story.

Bald Future Tommy and Izzie/The Queen.

The Bubble approaching Shebob.

As a melodramatist, which surely he is, Aronofsky makes use of hyperbolic visual spectacle for expressive ends, and The Fountain represents a very steep high-water mark of this in his work to date. Aside from the head-trip space sequences, the film as a whole is patterned around images of corridors and the movement from darkness to light, representative of Tommy’s journey to enlightenment.

Though a fundamentally small-scale story- a scientist’s wife dies, he grieves- The Fountain suggests a broader scope through the Conquistador and Space Bubble storylines. David Mackenzie’s Perfect Sense, likewise, oscillates between a very small story of two lovers, and the global catastrophe against which that story plays out.

Susan and Michael, Perfect Sense.

It’s a high-concept arthouse film, less radical but in the same ballpark as Suture, with a close focus on the romance and the Glasgow it takes place in, but against the backdrop of a series of inexplicable events which directs the course of the romance in such a way as to insist on its status as metaphor.

Michael (Ewen McGregor), a womanizing chef, works in a restaurant across the street from Susan’s apartment.

She (Eva Green) is a scientist working with the Centers for Disease Control who, one day, connects when he bums a cigarette from her. They will console each other and spend the night together after each is finally affected by the film’s first Global Inexplicable Event (my term, not theirs): a sudden flood of grief followed by the complete and permanent loss of the sense of smell.

Michael and Susan after their loss of smell. Or: director David Mackenzie riffing on Bergman.

This pattern is varied across the film in two ways. First, from the loss of the second sense to go onward, a third stage is interjected, such that the pattern becomes: flood of emotion –> immediate behavioral response relating to a sense or to an emotion –> loss of a sense. Each is presented in a montage with voiceover narration, carrying on from that which opens the film, which had set the scene and told us that these are “The days as we know them. The world as we imagine the world,” before events change everything. After humanity loses the sense of smell, taste is next, followed by hearing. In the second change to the pattern, each stage in the progressive senselessness of humanity will be presented as being increasingly sudden, such that the stages-of-response montages come quickly after the crisis montages. Further montages show not only humanity’s responses to the loss of each sense, but also explore all the forms those losses take: for instance, the loss of the sense of smell being less important in itself than the loss of all the memories associated with smells. Montages also show us how life goes on, how humanity adapts to the loss of each sense in turn. Michael’s restaurant is one focus of this: when smell goes, a montage shows us the kitchen staff making tastes stronger; when taste goes, they experiment with texture in their dishes instead.

In between each loss of a sense, Michael and Susan’s relationship develops in stages. They haltingly spend more time together, each negotiating the neurotic barriers they’ve erected around themselves: his fecklessness, her defensiveness. After the loss of taste, they embrace the sensual with and through each other: sex, dancing, eating. But the loss of hearing proves to be their Waterloo, and the first moment of the film where arthouse character drama is overtaken by pure melodramatic narration and affect. Loss of hearing is preceded by an explosion of anger and hostility. Chaos seems to reign, and Susan is forced to move in with Michael. At just this moment (and it’s clearly not coincidental that this happens just as they have, by default, entered the Moving In Together stage), the rage hits Michael, him before Susan. When he screams at Susan, what he says seems to confirm all her fears about him: that he doesn’t really care about her, that she is just a “set of holes” to him. Susan leaves Michael and returns to the lab. Michael, repentant, calls her and starts to leave a voicemail telling her it was just the disease, it wasn’t him yelling those horrible things at her. But this reaches Susan’s ears just as the rage hits her, and she throws away her mobile. After that, it’s too late: both have lost their sense of hearing (and with them, the film itself goes silent). Michael’s message will never reach her. In the aftermath of this, Michael tries to find her, but never manages to do so, and she never realizes that he is looking. The pathos that comes from the audience having this knowledge, but not Susan, is classically melodramatic, and, if the film works for the viewer on this level, it’s wrenching.

But at the conclusion, humanity feels a sudden rush of euphoria- “a profound appreciation of what it means to be alive,” the narrator tells us- and love. Forgetting everything but their love, Michael and Susan both try to find each other to share the moment. He cycles to her apartment; she drives to the restaurant. Thus, though they are actually painfully near each other, neither sees the other, and it seems that here at the end they might just miss each other (this is a leap, but I keep thinking here about the end of The Killer). Susan drives away as Michael runs out into the street, having seen her car from the window. But Susan has rounded the block: as Michael is looking one way, we see her car reappear in the background. They finally see and run towards each other, but as they do so, everything seems to get brighter, over-exposed. And then, just as they touch, both they and everyone on Earth loses the sense of sight. The drawing out of the suspense here- will they see each other, when we know, from the pattern the film has established, that this new flood of emotion portends another loss of a sense?- is pure melodrama. The film goes dark, just as it had gone silent when hearing was lost. We are told that Michael and Susan, embracing, can still feel each other, their arms, breath, and heartbeat. After the melodrama, then, an irony that is both sweet and just slightly bitter: we hear that as they hold onto each other that if anyone could see them (and no-one can), they would look like ordinary lovers, oblivious to all the world apart from each other. “This is how life goes on,” the narrator says. And the film ends.

As befits its subject, Perfect Sense is a deeply sensual film, concerned as it is with the relation of sense, experience, and emotion. The film as a whole centers on a play between the concrete and the abstract in connection with this dynamic. The character drama keeps us connected to the world of emotion, while the style insists on the concrete and the sensual: it’s standard arthouse realism, but with some very assertive stylization in traveling shots with a dv camera fixed to Michael’s bike, a technique that gives us a vivid sense of Michael’s experience of his world, and in the montages. The montages showing all the aspects of life humanity loses with each sense, in particular, are composed of sharp, saturated still photos that both open out the film to take in the broadest range of human experience, and suggest the ephemerality of that experience. The film asks, How would people keep going if they lost their sensual connection to the world? Michael’s boss worries that all humanity will look for from food is fat and flour, but in fact humanity is more resilient, finds other ways to heighten experience: by eating dishes in a restaurant that are all about the play of colors and textures, for instance. Finally, though, the answer we are left with is: if we lost everything else, what we would cling to would be each other. When all the senses are gone, we are left with our connection to other people. With love, in fact. The film could be as easily described as science-fiction as it can fantasy, but the inexplicability of these events, the lack of any kind of cause ever put on offer, recommends it as a supernatural romantic melodrama. The way that the film uses these inexplicable events as a way to explore the relation between brain and body, the impact of physical infirmities on emotional life (one way to think of Perfect Sense is as a allegory for what keeps us together when each of us starts falling apart), and especially as an exploration of what really matters that, in the end, affirms Love over all the things that in everyday life that may hold us back from it, renders it a quintessentially arthouse supernatural romantic melodrama. Along the way, though, it renders the world of the senses so vividly that even if I’ve spoiled you on the plot of Perfect Sense, it has a genuine sensual rush to it, and that in large part is what makes even its most abstract and metaphorical aspects effective.

That same sensual rush is in some measure the great saving grace of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I will say less about it here, as it’s certainly the best known, most widely seen film of this bunch.

As a co-production of Warner Bros. and Paramount budgeted at $150 million, starring one of the biggest male stars in contemporary cinema (Brad Pitt), helmed by one of the most important directors in contemporary cinema (David Fincher), and which as of April 2009 had made some $330 million theatrically worldwide (God only knows how much it’s made on DVD, blu-ray, streaming, and sales to cable, but at least that figure again, given the percentage of any film’s gross made up by ancillary revenues), it’s a film that doesn’t really fit comfortably into the arthouse category, let alone art cinema per se. I would argue, though, that it clearly is a Hollywood art film, just about as much as any “New Hollywood” (post-1960s) film ever has been. As an art film, it goes down very smoothly; its mostly linear, and generally objective; the narrative is clear and unambiguous. But as a blockbuster, it is unconventional, unique really, and quite overt in its… well, necromania. From first frame to last, it is in every way a film about death, in all its forms, and mortality in every way that it shapes our experience, but especially in the context of Love.

The short story, of course, is completely different. It’s often comic, if bittersweet, and it’s really about nonconformity: Benjamin just refuses to age, and therefore behave, the way everyone else does; it’s not a great story, but the ending, showing how Benjamin sees the world as his consciousness flickers away, really is. It’s disappointing, though understandable, that Fincher didn’t do more with it, that being down to a shift in viewpoint from Benjamin (Pitt) to Daisy (Cate Blanchett), such that the focus remains on a sense of loss as Benjamin grows into a child (but it’s also intriguing to imagine what a Terrence Malick might have done with it). The film, though, is most directly about the fact that every moment of Benjamin’s life foreshadows his own death, starting with his decrepitude at birth. Expected to die at any moment, of course he does not; but aging backwards, at every turn he is reminded of time, of the fact that life is fleeting, that anything at all might befall us in this world (Queenie’s mantra, and later Benjamin’s: “You never know what’s comin’ for ya”) but that we have to navigate it as best we can anyway. That we are fundamentally alone in doing so (“While everyone else was agin’, I was gettin’ younger- all alone”), yet with a knowledge of death, we must embrace what, and who, comes our way all the more. Encountering death, Benjamin is constantly reminded that at the end, we have to just let go; and this becomes his motto for life as well.

He is raised in an old-age home, death always around the corner, and in all sorts of forms (including near-death experiences: “Did I ever tell you I was struck by lightnin’ 7 times?”). His experiences with work (the crew travels from port to port) and women (except Daisy and Queenie) are all on some level transitory, random. His experience of the war is likewise random, sudden, and violent.

Benjamin and Daisy failing to connect.

Benjamin and Daisy’s relationship is long delayed by their discrepancies in aging, in fact doomed from the start by them, but this is what gives Fincher, Pitt and Cate Blanchett, and cinematographer Claudio Miranda leave to bathe the depiction of their time together in a golden glow, a quality that becomes the film’s chief appeal for consideration as a romantic melodrama.

Yet because the film reminds of so insistently that Benjamin and Daisy’s relationship is doomed to end as it does (and apart from anything else, the circumstances of Daisy’s death, and Caroline’s reading of the diary, tell us how the relationship ends even before we meet Benjamin), the fundamental melodrama of the situation is transformed into a philosophical resignation more characteristic of art cinema- and, of course, of a film about death.

Benjamin spending a few last moments with Caroline before he leaves.

It also opens on an art-cinematically reflexive touch: Daisy relating the story of Mr. Gateau and his clock, a story that has nothing whatever to do with the plot of the film, but which functions to set the rules of the film, its intrinsic norms. That is, it doesn’t just tell us what the film is about, it tells us what it is. It works quite clearly as a story about time that parallels Benjamin’s- time moving backwards; as therefore an epigram to the film itself, which, like Mr. Gateau’s clock, makes time go backwards- for Benjamin; and as the artist’s model of the film itself in miniature. Both the film and the clock are machines that play with time, made to remind us of death and expressly to achieve an emotional response in their respective audiences. “I hope you enjoy my clock,” Gateau/Fincher say (we might add, /Eric Roth, the screenwriter).

David Fincher, hoping you’ll enjoy his clock.

But there’s a dynamic interaction of melodrama and art film here. Even if the ideas of the film are fundamentally banal- take life as it comes! (not surprising from the writer of the heinous Forrest Gump)- its emotional pull can make it effective enough as a melodrama to offset its shortcomings as art cinema. Moreover, as cinema, there’s a sensuous pull to it, as well as an emotional reticence (quite unlike the way Aronofsky would have treated this material) that counteracts, as an astringent, (most of) the lumpier conceits in the script (notable exception: the hummingbird). Fincher roots the film in a vivid, textured realism that plays against the fantastic elements in a story of a man who somehow ages backward. By grounding the drama in a recognizable world, though, that realism actually plays into the idea of Benjamin’s condition as a metaphor by which the makers intend to convey something about the human condition, a metaphor they insist we read as such. Within that realism, too, Fincher and his team craft a series of seductive, pictorially ravishing shots that impart a mordant romanticism that elegantly matches the story.

Thank you all for reading this. This is the penultimate entry in this series. There will be some delay before I post the finale; I’m about to be very, very busy for a while. The final entry in the series will come back around to the films that caught my attention in the first place: The Lake House, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and The Adjustment Bureau. I will outline a series of issues and raise a series of questions around these films. As always, and at any time, I greatly appreciate any responses and comments you should see fit to provide; I hope to do something more with this stuff one of these days.

To be concluded.

Thanks to Adrian Martin and Matthew Ward for suggesting films for this entry.

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