Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Stilted Life

The Life Before Her Eyes basks so intently in it own beauty that it forgets how to tell its story in a powerful and compelling way. There are a lot of powerful themes at work in this undeniably sumptuous film, but they are all couched in languorous visual subtext so thick that it suffocates the strong underlying ideas.

The film tells the fractured story of Diana, who on the surface appears to have a perfect life, but harbors an increasing sense of guilt and dread deep within. There are plenty of flashbacks at play here, but to the film’s credit they feel inherent to the story. Both the teenaged and adult Dianas are central to the film’s gradually-unveiled story. Diana is played by Evan Rachel Wood as a teen and by Uma Thurman as an adult; both actresses immerse themselves in the emotion of the character they play—though the characters are strikingly dichotomous in spite of being two distinct stages of the same person. Wood’s younger version is vital and risky, almost destructively selfish in her immaturity; Thurman’s grown-up is shaky and fearful, and is perhaps the victim of a deteriorating mental state.

Obviously there is a trauma at the center of this character shift, and it is a harrowing one—a high school shooting made to look even more intense and bloody than the Columbine tragedy. The incident is replayed ad nauseum during the film, with the intent that each incantation reveals slightly more than the last. But the shooting sequence is so meticulously compiled that it becomes tiresome after a while—not once does the situation feel scary or even chaotic, it just feels forced. Similarly, the worsening psychosis of the adult Diana becomes so overstated that after a while it would make sense for the film’s twist to reveal that Diana is an undead zombie killer. Thurman throws herself into the performance and does what she can, but the very deliberate depiction of her character as a jittery nut-job betrays any effort Thurman could make to turn the character into something believable. By the time the big reveal happens near the film’s end, it sort of does a serviceable job of explaining adult Diana’s weirdness, but at that point the whole enterprise has become so tiresome in its overcomplicated structure and its relentless fixation on splendiferous detail that an explanation is the last thing the audience wants.

The Life Before Her Eyes was directed by Vadim Perelman, who is absolutely the right director for this material. He is a very singular and ubiquitous artist, one who appreciates the beauty of images and the importance of a strong thematic subtext. His first film, 2003’s House of Sand and Fog, was a masterpiece of spare, haunting visuals and layered storytelling. Striving for the same evocative feeling this time around, Perelman oversteps by centering on the visual element to such a degree that there is almost nothing else for the screenplay to lean on other than images with dual meanings. I love ambitious visual filmmaking as much as anyone else, and I will admit that Perelman has not lost a step as a creator of meaningful images. But in this film, while the visuals are overloaded with content, the screenplay is sorely lacking. House of Sand and Fog felt like a tragedy where the filmmaking enhanced the story’s purpose. The Life Before Her Eyes feels like an overwrought, underwritten film where the only tragedy is that the script can’t support the weight of the filmmaking.


Stella said...

This looks like a wonderful film, J. Thanks, I haven't heard of it. I hope you are both doing well.

J McKiernan said...

Well, I wasn't quite looking to spark enthusiasm over the film with what I intended to be a negative review...but, uh...glad I could turn you onto it :)

The deal with these small films--even unsuccessful ones like this one--is that they all need to be seen and considered. That's why I wanted to make sure I got this review out there.

There are three even better independent releases out there right now. They are, in descending order of quality:

1) The Visitor
2) Son of Rambow
3) Then She Found Me

Reviews for them are forthcoming...