Friday, April 25, 2008
As a teenager, Diana (Evan Rachel Wood) is a little more rebellious and reckless than most. But her friend Maureen (Eva Amurri) is the opposite -- a shy, studious, church-going teen. They jokingly refer to themselves as "the virgin and the whore." But on a thoroughly typical spring day, the girls are in the school bathroom when they hear gunshots. Then the shooter enters the bathroom and points his gun at them.
Evan Rachel Wood and Eva Amurri (Magnolia)
Cut to Diana (now Uma Thurman) fifteen years later. In fact it is the week of the fifteenth anniversary of the school shooting and Diana is feeling intense emotional stress - a mix of survivor guilt and the inability to escape those terrifying moments. But she seems to have pulled her life together in those interceding years. She's married to a successful professor, she has a beautiful blonde daughter, she's teaching art and she lives in a lovely home. Her life seems almost idyllic.
The film continues to move back and forth in time: repeating incidents from the past, contemplating the days leading up to the shooting, and following the adult Diana through the stressful days leading up to the memorial service at the school. But the moment in time she keeps coming back to is the high school bathroom as the shooter asks which one of the girls wants to be the one to die.
That choice is likely to call to mind Sophie's Choice (in which Meryl Streep's character had to choose which of her children could live). It also sets up why the survivor might feel guilt. But ultimately, the film's non-linear structure revolves around a narrative gimmick that's meant to give dramatic punch to the final moments of the film. But it's a device that may have worked better in a literary context or in another director's hand.
Perelman succeeded previously in bringing another literary work to the screen, Andre Dubus III's House of Sand and Fog. With that film he found a cinematic style that matched the book. Perelman effectively moved back and forth between the spiraling fates of the two characters to weave a complicated narrative. Perelman offered nature as a kind Greek chorus to the characters' fates with repeated shots of fog and clouds rolling in to remind us of our place in the universe and how we seem destine to repeat certain human failures.
Diana (Uma Thurman) and her daughter in The Life Before Her Eyes (Magnolia)
With The Life Before Her Eyes , Perelman tries to create something as visually evocative and even intensely poetic. But this time he can't nail the tone or the visual texture. What flowed naturally in House of Sand and Fog, plays out with pretension and self-conscious artiness in The Life Before Her Eyes. He wants the school shooting to be like a stone tossed into a lake and sending ripples through time. Everything emanates from this one moment. Perelman also wants his film to be both magical and rooted in the real world, beautiful and horrific. But he can't get that tone right. The book definitely serves up some distinct challenges. In the press materials, Perelman acknowledges, "It doesn't have a very linear structure or a conventional narrative...it has a very dreamlike quality to it. But that's what made it so attractive to me: the challenge of bringing that to screen." Author Laura Kasischke then serves up this description of her novel: "It's about dreams and about imagination-that splash of imaginative ecstasy or agony-and the tearing of the fabric of a dream."
Okay, that's not an easy thing to convey on the screen. But filmmakers have been able to express that. There are dreamlike moments in films such as Donnie Darko, especially the end montage cut to Mad World. But Perelman thinks that slow motion and nature shots are all he needs to convey that dreamlike quality. The look the film achieves is a kind of hyper reality. It's as if Diana's life were moving in slow motion so she can step back and examine it in all its details. As she looks at it we feel like she is moving through a dream, with some elements too perfect to be believed. The flowers are more vivid than they could possibly be, Diana's daughter is blonde and adorable beyond belief. But then ugliness creeps in be it a violent TV show the daughter watches or a burnt meal in her Martha Stewart kitchen. There's a little bit of Our Town in the film too. In that Thorton Wilder play a the recently deceased Emily misses her life and asks to go back to relive part of it. She's warned to pick a very ordinary day. Then as Emily watches her own life from the point of view of an observer, she finds the transience of everyday life so achingly beautiful that she demands to be taken back to the cemetery. It's a beauty that she says the living fail to grasp. The Life Before Her Eyes desperately wants to find that kind of aching beauty but can't.
Unfortunately, this time around Perelman and his literary source don't sync up. For one he doesn't make us buy into the friendship between Diana and Maureen, a odd couple that seem to have nothing in common. Perelman also doesn't find a way to effectively convey the carnage and terror of the high school attack. He shows a lot of bodies, and a lot of slow motion shots of parents and police outside the school, but in slowing everything down and repeating the scene in the bathroom ad nausum he wears viewers down rather than affecting them deeply.
Perelman is not helped by screenwriter Emil Stern. I don't know how much of the dialogue given to the characters comes directly from the book but the lines the characters do speak are often very self-conscious. On the written page they may have been easier to take but when they are put in the mouths of these actors, some of the lines play badly. Diana's science teacher, for instance, is asked to indulge in a poetic moment as he tries to instill an idea in his disinterested students. He tries to impart three pieces of information: the heart is the strongest muscle, the brain has more cells than stars in the galaxy, and the body is made up of mostly water. The students snicker and smile but the words touch Diana. The scene is earnest but tries too hard to drive its point home. What worked so well in Wilder's Our Town was that the poetry and beauty came from observing the simplest things rather than from trying to wax poetical about big ideas.
None of the actors here is able to find the right notes to hit either. Wood seems to remain teary-eyed throughout the film as if she were always on the verge of breaking down. That makes her rebellious teen hard to take. As for Thurman, I'm starting to think she's a female version of Keanu Reeves - tall and pleasing to look at but better in movies where she's carefully posed or used for her physicality like in Kill Bill . Here she has a hard time conveying genuine emotions and subtleties.
The Life Before Her Eyes (rated R for violent and disturbing content, language and brief drug use) has the core of an inventive narrative and a twist that probably worked better as a literary device. But as a whole the film has a contrived emotional build up that fails to deliver the necessary punch it so desperately wants in the end.
Companion viewing: Sophie's Choice, Jacob's Ladder, Elephant, House of Sand and Fog, Our Town