Friday, July 1, 2011

Caitlin's Review of Beginners

a review by Caitlin Murphy
As the most intensely collaborative medium, film can bear witness to some strange alchemy.  Often a movie has so many great things going for it, yet those things somehow don’t add up the way we sense they were intended to.   Mike Mills (Thumbsucker, 2005) had a few too many gifts under his writer/director’s Christmas tree for his most recent outing, the often charming, but uneven Beginners.  
In Beginners, Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is grieving the recent death of his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer).  A few years prior, after Oliver’s mother died, Hal came out as homosexual, and so his final years of life saw wild re-birth and discovery, and called on much understanding and adjustment from his son.  The film jumps between three distinct time frames: the story’s present (2003), as Oliver moves through mourning for his dad, with the ‘help’ of a new love interest; flashbacks to the years between Hal’s coming out and dying; and memories of time Oliver spent with his mother when he was a kid.  Unfortunately, of these three periods, the one that most interested Mills is the one that least interested me.
Melanie Laurent (of Inglorious Basterds) plays ‘the girl’ (in this case, her name is Anna).  We first meet her when Oliver does, at a costume party that he reluctantly attends, dressed as Freud (a choice a bit too on the nose).  Suffering from laryngitis, Anna isn’t speaking and has to communicate by writing notes (kinda fun, kinda tedious).  She’s an actress, so she spends a lot of time living in hotels, a transient lifestyle for a floaty girl.  Anna is quirky and enigmatic; her hair is always kinda matted and out of place (in that “my hair is untameable and whimsical just like me” sorta way) and (of course) she is also French, so speaks with a cute little accent.   You’ve met movie Anna before, many times:  she is that lovely creature of pure instinct and appetite, unfortunately only attractive to the one person who gets to fuck her.  To the rest of the world, she never seems of this world, never full-bodied or warm-blooded.  The actual information we do get about Anna feels forced in – we find out for instance that her father regularly calls her to threaten suicide, which sucks, but isn’t character development.  Essentially, the interactions and dynamics between Anna and Oliver feel interchangeable with those of any other relationship in any other hip-indyish film; sadly, Beginners spends the bulk of its time in this rather dull landscape.
(Aside:  perhaps some of my venom for the ‘quirky girl’ stereotype results simply from the fact that 95% of films tell stories with male protagonists, from male perspectives.  Consequently, I (we) never really get to meet the male equivalent of the quirky girl – that odd, whimsical, life-changing guy you run into by chance at that party you didn’t even want to go to in the first place.)
On a related note:  there seems to be an odd trend of late in indyish film, or maybe contemporary culture in general, of treating the eccentric and instinctual with fetishistic zeal (ethical considerations be damned).   We’re told, for example, that Anna smokes even in non-smoking rooms (oh, how adorable); Oliver and his friends take up graffiti to unleash their pent-up pithiness on the world (how thoughtful to share through vandalism); they tell off a waitress at a roller-rink because she’s informed them that dogs aren’t allowed, and then Anna and Oliver steal the roller skates to spite her (way to show that rule-following bitch for doing her job).   See, it’s all held up as free-spirited merry-making, but kinda comes across as self-indulgent, pain-in-the-assedness; a juvenile approach to loving and living as “Let’s go be crazy and inspired together! Our auras are too bright for you world!”   Now, I’m not looking for a bunch of simplistic tsk-tsk finger-wagging at this sort of thing, but I do think it’s an interesting sign of our increasingly narcissistic ways, and that Mills had some room to further investigate motivation here.
Putting a camera on Christopher Plummer and having him read flyers from hardware stores for 90 minutes would be compelling cinema.  The man oozes warmth and charm; whenever he’s on screen, you’re giddily glad to see him, and whenever he leaves, you just want him to come back already.  Clearly, Plummer’s performance is one of the main reasons why Hal’s storyline was so much more inviting, but it’s not the only one.   Boldly exploring his homosexuality so late in life, Hal’s contribution to the film’s narrative is decidedly queer; it felt fresh, new and exciting.   Basically, I didn’t feel like I’d necessarily met Hal before and was curious to spend more time with him. But instead we hung out with Anna in her hotel room, doing silly voices and being told how we just had to trust her.  Yawn.
Mills made us of some great stylistic touches in Beginners, mostly through the insertion of non-diegetic visuals.  When Oliver hears that his father has a tumour the size of a quarter, the screen flashes to the image of a quarter on a black screen, then counts out 25 pennies; instantly and intimately we’re shown the oddness of the associating mind.  Clever.  And felt.  At another point, the screen flashes through each of the colours of the gay pride flag as Oliver, in voice-over, identifies what each represents.  Bold.  And felt.  The more explicit use of visuals, through the narrative convenience of Oliver’s job as a graphic artist, comparatively, was too easy.  Thus not felt.
“Cut your favourite line.”  It’s a common piece of advice given to writers during the editing phase.  The logic here is that writers instinctually cling to their most precious material, precisely the stuff that is too… well, precious.  Mills had a few too many cute touches and clever elements he wanted to cram in, and he would have done well to lower a few of these in the mix or else drop them altogether. For instance, the device of revealing through sub-titles the thoughts of the dog Oliver inherits from his father could have been first to hit the chopping block.  Frustratingly, I felt at times that Mills simply didn’t trust the story to be enough.  A mistake, as it was plenty. 
I wasn’t surprised to read later that Beginners was a personal, quasi autobiographical story for Mills.  The detail and specificity in a lot of scenes, especially the flashbacks involving Oliver’s mother (a touching performance by Mary Page Keller) were wonderfully evocative.  
The cross-generational look at the history of gay acceptance was quite profound.  The theme that we all, at whatever age, feel like beginners, hopelessly lost, having to jump into the unknown with instinct, not guarantees, always a lovely reminder.  Christopher Plummer, a god.  And yet.  

No comments:

Post a Comment