Passion Of Mind
A Film by Alain Berliner
The new film from Alain Berliner looks like a star vehicle and waddles like a star vehicle, but it doesn't quite quack like a star vehicle, and in that lies its saving grace. It certainly provides the opportunity for a tour-de-force performance from its leading actress, Demi Moore, but primarily thanks to the fact that she rises to the challenge to give what may be the best performance of her career, the film is more than movie star fluff.
The Independent Film bona fides of the Belgian director (whose previous American release was the quirky and fascinating story of a cross-dressing pre-teen, Ma Vie En Rose) and the two male leads, Stellan Skarsgard and William Fichtner play off against the Hollywood sparkle of Ms. Moore and mainstream co-screenwriter Ron Bass, whose numerous credits include Snow Falling On Cedars, Entrapment, My Best Friend's Wedding, Dangerous Minds, and a score of others. From this tension between the forces conventional film-making and "outsider" consciousness, comes a film that has some of the best of both worlds, and fortunately little of the worst.
The story of the film requires some suspension of disbelief. The plot presents a situation that, taken at face value, is very difficult to credit. Yet part of the strength of the film lies in the fact that its world is so convincingly created that the question of its similarity to the "real" world becomes unimportant.
It is the emotional connection between the characters that drives the film. The central conceit - the life of a character so beguiled by her own imaginings that she can no longer distinguish between her dream life and her reality - is far-fetched. But seen as a metaphor rather than a literal narrative, it offers a compelling study of the human condition. How, after all, do we know how much of what we experience is real and how much enhanced - or even created - by our imagination?
This is the question with which the Marie/Marti character at the center of the story (Moore) has to deal. Moving between two equally convincing "lives," she has to deal with the tension of not knowing which represents "objective reality," and with the dilemma of having to decide between them. Although her situation takes this conflict to a literal extreme, it is a choice we all face on some level much of the time - between our fantasy version of reality and reality itself.
The film deals with the world of dreams, and it takes place between two dreams. The cinematography, by Eduardo Serra, is remarkable in its ability to evoke the soft colors and deeply satisfying image compositions of alluring dreams without ever seeming contrived. The emphasis on the power of visual imagery - in this case its genuinely sensual seductiveness - which is a hall-mark of many independent films - serves successfully here to add a convincing note of hyper-reality (which can also be read as "unreality") to both worlds, thus enhancing the audience's sense of participating in Marti's inner struggle.
It is the film's remarkable ability to draw the audience into this struggle, to present Marti's inner life with a subtle power that actively engages the empathy of the attentive viewer, that makes the film work. At some level, it does not matter whether the details of the story are accurate, or even "believable" in the ordinary meaning of that word - we are dealing with the world of dreams, and "believability" is a concept that is irrelevant. The question is, does the struggle we witness feel emotionally honest? And the film-makers have done such a good and thorough job that the answer is, yes.
This is a delicate undertaking, and one that will probably not be widely appreciated - which is no doubt why a relatively low-budget approach was chosen. Co-writer Bass also has a Producer credit - so its a good bet that he has a significant amount of his own money invested in the project. It seems to be a project of personal importance for him as well as for Moore.
This is not a film Hollywood would rush to make. It deals with issues in human life - specifically the necessity of choice, of sacrificing some things in order to embrace others, and of the lengths to which we sometimes go to avoid the pain of making those decisions - that don't lend themselves to glib analysis and simple conclusions. Although the film presents a catharsis of a sort, it is our observation of the process of Marti's resolution of her own internal strife that is important - not its specific outcome.
In addition to the quietly breathtaking cinematography - which is in itself reason enough to see the film - the other technical aspects are impressive as well. The sets and costumes make every scene seem to shimmer appropriately, on the edge of being a "dream-sequence," which of course, some of them are. The music is unobtrusive but supports the action with a delightful subtext that enhances without becoming manipulative.
Although these "production elements" add a great deal to the film, as in any psychological drama, it is the lives of the characters - the work of the actors who bring those characters to life - that give the story its strength. The three lead actors here, supported by an ensemble of accomplished performers each of whom makes a positive contribution to the mix, who give this work its vitality.
At the outset, let me say, I am not a Demi Moore fan. Her proclivity for taking the easy (and often low) route to popular success (vide: the nude bathing scene in The Scarlet Letter!) has been enough to make me skeptical of her talent. I nearly avoided Passion Of Mind because some of the advertising made it seem like a vehicle for her. I am glad I didn't let my prejudice stand in my way, because she comes up with a remarkable performance here.
The task is a difficult one - it is easy to see this film as a romantic fantasy and to dismiss it without going any deeper. It is up to Moore to expose - without exaggerating - the danger she is in, the risks she is taking both in maintaining her "double life," and in making her choice. At one point, one of the psychiatrists with whom she consults (she has one in each of her worlds) points out that risk to her, and it is the most quietly chilling moment in the film, where we see through all the beautiful illusions to the terrifying whirlpool of psychosis that lies behind them.
Moore manages to carry this load with grace and wit. Looking her age, refusing to fall back on mannerism, she creates a character with whose imagination and confusion the audience can identify. It is not the scenery-chewing Three Faces Of Eve psychosis that she is depicting here, but a much more common and elusive variety, much harder to delineate. And we are seeing it not from the outside, but from her point of view, so she needs to enlist us as allies right from the start. It is a testament to her craft and her grasp of the complex material that she is able to do so.
Credit also goes to Stellan Skarsgard whose breakthrough film with American audiences was the much praised Breaking The Waves, and who has gone on to mainstream success in such films as Ronin and Amistad, while at the same time staying active in European Independent circles, particularly those of provocative experimental film-maker Lars Von Trier and his "dogma" colleagues.
Here, Skarsgard gives a beautifully measured presence, neither too much nor too little, as a pivotal force in one of Marti's competing worlds. His physical comfort, his sensuality and his underlying good-humor and sympathy make him a perfect foil for Moore's longing and her uncertainty. His character is mostly receptive, reflective rather than active - a hard thing to communicate on screen, which requires a performer of experience and confidence: to trust in "doing nothing." But Skarsgard is equal to the task, engaging the audience to root as hard for his reality as for its alternative.
William Fichtner, who has acquitted himself admirably in small but notable supporting roles in mainstream films ranging from Armageddon, Strange Days, Contact, and the recent The Perfect Storm, as well as leading roles is such Indie hits as Albino Alligator and Go, fills in his side of the triangle of personalities with great skill.
Making unusual choices in his reactions and line readings, Fichtner presents a character who is clearly deeply felt and understood by the actor - one who is a fully-rounded and idiosyncratic individual. At one point in the story, where Marti has confessed her confusion to him, he takes a moment to look closely at her, and then responds quietly, "I'm real," with such heartfelt conviction that the whole question of what it means to be "real" in our human context is suddenly brought into focus. It is also a perfect set-up for Marti's delayed response, hovering between trust and self-doubt, "That's what they all say."
It is easy to miss this film. It got little publicity from Paramount Classics who distributed it in this country. The film has been open since the last week in May, but is only now reaching secondary markets like ours. It also got short shrift from many critics, who seemed to dismiss it without much thought, unable to see beyond their own desire to shape it into some sort of "high-concept story. It is instructive to note that, in the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB.com), under "genre" it lists "romance/drama/thriller" - a mixed description that is completely misleading.
Yet Passion Of Mind is an engaging and highly accomplished piece of film-making that rewards careful attention and engagement with much food for thought. The visual beauty, the quietly-intense storytelling, the compelling performances, add up to a film that works on may levels.
That's my take on it. What's yours?