The Unbearable Lightness of Gravity; The Depth and Resonance of Adore
I’m always in a bad mood after I see a bad movie, especially when I have hopes that the film will be an altogether different experience. Such was the case today with Gravity (2013), the latest feature from director Alfonso Cuarón, which has been playing to rapturous reviews and packed audiences on the festival circuit, and is now racking up record grosses in general release. Yet Gravity is a failure from start to finish.
George Clooney (I’m not going to bother with character names, because there’s no characterization) is a veteran astronaut on a supposedly routine space maintenance mission, along with rookie science officer sidekick Sandra Bullock and some other peripheral characters, when disaster hits in the form of space debris, wrecking their craft. The secondary characters are killed off, Clooney and Bullock are forced to survive with minimal resources, and about a third of the way through the film, Clooney nobly sacrifices himself so that Bullock can have a better shot at making it safely back to earth.
There is, of course, the obligatory hallucination sequence in which Bullock imagines Clooney has mysteriously returned from deep space to assist her, again even more predictably during a suicide bid by Bullock, who feels the situation is hopeless. But Clooney’s phantasmal appearance gives Bullock the courage, and the knowledge – somehow – to carry on, and after more “harrowing” escapes from one craft to another, Bullock triumphantly touches down back on earth. The end. The special effects are state of the art, but who cares? It seems altogether fitting that the illusion of depth afforded by 3D Imax projection fits Gravity like a glove, since the film itself aspires to thematic depth, and yet has none at all.
The whole film is cardboard from start to finish, and the more space debris and interior cabin junk Cuarón throws at the camera (including a bubblehead Marvin the Martian doll from the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes cartoons – since Gravity is a Warner Bros. production, why not throw in a cute little plug, right?) the less convincing the entire affair becomes. In the end, I spent most of the film’s 91 minute running time anxiously checking my watch, waiting for the parade of clichés to come to an end.
Yes, there are a lot of long, complicated takes in the film, of the “I can move the camera around a lot” variety; yes, the film is a marvel of special effects, while never once being even remotely realistic; but none of it matters – at the center of the film, there’s nothing going on. Clooney strolls through his role with a minimum of effort, essentially playing himself, as he always does; Bullock tries, but with such a weak and predictable script, her work is doomed from the start. Yes, that’s Ed Harris as the voice of mission control; again, so what?
Cuarón has made at least one excellent film, Y tu mamá también way back in 2001, when he was young and hungry and had no money, but then Hollywood tapped him on the shoulder, and he was more than happy to make the jump. Next came a run of the mill Harry Potter film, then the uneven Children of Men (2006), which was enlivened by the appropriately haggard appearance of Clive Owen and the always reliable Michael Caine, but now Cuarón has stepped firmly into the Hollywood blockbuster camp, complete with a music score that tells you what to feel and when to feel it. It’s a sad, depressing, and unimaginative film – nothing more than a thrill ride.
But on the same day I saw Gravity, I also packed in a screening of Anne Fontaine’s new film Adore (2013, a.k.a. Perfect Mothers), which I thought was absolutely beautiful, resonant, full of the pain, sloppiness and passion of life, set in contemporary New South Wales.
Based on a novella by Doris Lessing, scripted by Christopher Hampton, with immaculate cinematography by Christophe Beaucarne, and a music score by Christopher Gordon that evokes Georges Delerue’s lush work for Godard’s Le Mépris (1963), Adore is an ambitious and daring film, which despite some minor flaws is a deeply evocative piece of work.
Naomi Watts, who also co-produced the film, stars as Lil, a woman in her mid 40s who has been best friends with Roz (Robin Wright) since childhood. Roz has a husband, Harold (Ben Mendelsohn, excellent as usual) and a son, Tom (James Frecheville). Lil, a widow, lives close by with her son Ian (Xavier Samuel). Tom and Ian, both in their early 20s, are also best friends, and spend most of their time surfing and living a deceptively idyllic lifestyle. But matters become more complex when Ian and Roz tumble into bed, and then Tom and Lil follow suit. Harold, meantime, has found a teaching job in Sydney, and when Roz refuses to follow him there, he divorces her and remarries.
Both women decide to continue their relationships indefinitely, while keeping them a closely guarded secret – indeed, the rumor around town is that Lil and Roz are so close that they’re lesbian lovers, a rumor they do nothing to discourage. Both know that what they’re doing is potentially dangerous, but the pull of their emotions is too strong.
Two years pass, and both Tom and Ian become involved with women their own age, but in both cases the relationships are a sham. Tom fathers a child and marries, but keeps sleeping with Lil on the side, until one evening after a family outing at beach with all four women, Ian catches Tom and Lil making love, and angrily exposes their continuing relationship to one and all.
Critics have trashed Fontaine’s film as soft-core porn, but it’s not – it’s a strong, solid film that apparently scares the hell out of some people. Audiences, especially women, who rarely get a chance to see themselves portrayed as more than props or sidekicks on the screen, love it. The most perceptive review of the film thus far has come from Damon Wise in The Guardian, who called the film “an incredibly provocative piece of work, featuring a brave and vulnerable performance by Naomi Watts (who seems perhaps a little too young) and a career-high acting master class from Robin Wright (who is cast perfectly).” I couldn’t agree more.
Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. His newest books are Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access (University Press of Kentucky, 2013) and Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (Rutgers University Press, 2012).