Monday, April 21, 2008

Emotional Arithmetic: Impressive figures that don't quite add up

There’s this scene in Emotional Arithmetic that, like a handful of others, feels as though it was shaken loose from the film’s tight weave of pervading solemnity. It features two old guys getting up in the dead of night to raid the icebox for the congealed leftovers of what was previously a lavish meal. With their grub and a couple of bottles of 50, they hunker over a table and get down to work. Each man represents a disparate chapter in the history of a beguiling younger woman, and this unexpected wee-hours companionship is thus laced with a certain, amusingly masculine tension. What happens in this scene neither dissolves the tension entirely, not does it exactly resolve anything. It lingers briefly between the ostensibly important scenes. Interestingly, this scene lingers in my memory more vividly than anything else in the movie.

Awkwardly adapted from Matt Cohen’s Holocaust-related novel by screenwriter Jefferson Lewis and director Paolo Barzman, Emotional Arithmetic, with its godawful title, was never going to have an easy time proving itself a dynamic cinematic experience. It comes burdened with themes of loss, sacrifice, memory, and the at times crippling responsibility to the past. I say burdened not because these themes aren’t potent—on the contrary, the ideas Cohen’s addressed are rich and resonant—but because rather than coming to us through action, these themes are announced, lobbed about, mulled over.

What eases this burden considerably is the tremendous cast, five actors from four different countries with such accumulated experience as to evoke networks of emotion the moment they appear on screen together. Susan Sarandon plays Melanie, Gabriel Byrne plays Christopher, a pair linked by their time spent in the Drancy transit camp in occupied France as kids, and their being rescued from deportation to Auschwitz by Jakob, played by Max Von Sydow. The bulk of Emotional Arithmetic takes place four decades later, at Melanie’s rural home in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, where Melanie is now a mentally unstable middle-aged woman, wife to David, a much older history professor played by Christopher Plummer, and mother to Benjamin, a handsome, talented chef played by Roy Dupuis. The story as such concerns an unexpected reunion between Melanie, Christopher and Jakob, an event fraught with opposing ideas about how to memorialize victims of catastrophe and how to manage life’s loose ends and enduring desires.

There are moments where something happens, risks are taken, pent-up feelings are given expression—but these moments are nearly crowded out by scenes of stasis or contemplation—and it is not an active, nor an especially contagious contemplation. The rather gaudy, overwrought flashbacks to Drancy constitute only a fraction of the Emotional Arithmetic’s duration, but they somehow exemplify the overall weakness here, a tendency to make a case for the film’s seriousness by merely directing our attention toward events that we all know are overwhelmingly serious. The end result I suppose is a somewhat muddled meditation, a movie that doesn’t entirely work as a movie, but arguably fucntions as some modest catalyst for thought, and a rare opportunity to see actors of this caliber sharing the screen.

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