October 25, 2005

Nine Lives

Nine Lives is the sort of movie I don't have much experience with. There is no traditional unifying narrative structure. There are only nine real shots. And for the duration of each shot, we are stuck with these people whether we want to be or not. There's something unflinching about that. As the time builds, so does the tension. We are trained to expect cuts every couple of frames these days; by the time minute six rolls around there is a connection to place and time that is concrete and absorbing.
A large part of its power is derived from this novelty. Some of the scenes engaged me much stronger than others, and when I wasn't involved with the drama I used the time to admire the craft. By the time I'd gotten my head around the flow and form of the film, it ventured into places surprising and exciting. The first scene creates a feeling of repressive, overbearing reality. The last scene is a delight of barely disguised abstract and whimsy. The seven sandwiched in the middle thread between the two philosophies, creating seemingly impossible connections and raising serious questions of how the world relates to itself, both literally and thematically.
It is ostensibly a film about seven woman and seven relationships. My experience was that some lingered with me more than others. Elpidia Carrillo sticks because the scene gives us little else to cling to. I recognized the skill in crafting the cohesive transformation from humble mopper to arrogant rabble-rouser. But it failed to engage me on a personal level. Contrast that to Robin Wright Penn, where the slightest shift in facial expression changes the whole feeling of the scene. Carrillo was working against a void, and in contrast Penn and a hauntingly understated Jason Isaacs share a familiarity that is rather claustrophobic. Every turn, every moment — even the funny ones — carried a feeling of unease.
Then there's Lisa Gay Hamilton, with the performance of the film. Though her character shares the bulk of the screen time with Sydney Tamiia Poitier's character, the latter's role is so reactionary that Hamilton has full reign. There is something so fragmented, unhinged, and fatally wounded about the performance that nearly knocked my breath away. From moment to moment, her actions are completely unpredictable and yet never less than believable. The character is a prime candidate for scenery chewing, but Hamilton internalizes the drama to such an extent that each outburst pierces to the core.
I could spend two hours watching Holly Hunter pick at her toe nails and come away better for the experience. But what she and Stephen Dillane achieve here is something rather than extraordinary. The scene utilizes the vulnerability inherent in Hunt's film persona and radicalizes it. She is open and optimistic, and so the most open to disappointment. Dillane is the antithesis of all of these things. From the very first moment, I understood why they were together. They're banter was vibrant, a much needed respite from the heavy drama that had preceded it. But like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the vitrol that quickly accumulates underneath the dialog undermines much of the appreciation. The arcs of the two couples will run parallel, without quite the over-the-top theatrics of that celebrated 1966 affair.
Amanda Seyfried's Samantha in the next story is perhaps the most relentlessly watchable character of the film. As she bounces back and forth between the dominant personalities of each parent, I found myself totally drawn into each shift in body language and every slightest facial expression. I found myself regarding this passive personality, and watching the way the camera regarded her. I can't remember a word of dialog from this scene, but I remember every slightest twitch.
The Lorna scene isn't driven so much by Amy Brenneman's perfectly acceptable performance so much as by a narrative thrust that offers some exciting new twist with each new encounter. It consistently surprised me, and entered places that I couldn't have expected going in. A true delight.
"Ruth" shifts the focus to the depressed and disappointed mother from two sketches back. In the time it took me to make the connection, I had already shifted my allegiance to the Other Man — in this case, Aidan Quinn. The details of their affair are utterly mundane. Yet the perspective of the Quinn character is utterly unique. He takes one look at the ordinary and in a simple turn of phrase unearths the extraordinary.
"Camille" gives Kathy Baker and outlet to just bat for the fences. But it's her straight man, Joe Mantegna (brilliant in almost anything), that imbues her ravings with depth. Despite her behavior throughout, there is never a doubt that the bond between them is concrete. Something that could have been merely amusing becomes one of the most poignant experiences in the movie.
Finally, "Maggie" ties everything thematically to a close. The rapport between Glenn Close and Dakota Fanning is natural and true. Before we even know how they relate, we realize that the presence of this child is what makes Maggie complete. It isn't hammered into the audience. It is enough simply to observe them, and everything makes sense. That's all it takes to drive Maggie home.
I cannot say whether Nine Lives would have been so effective had the novelty of it not felt so original and fresh. The fact is, it did feel original and fresh. I left the cinema with a greater appreciation of film and the ideas that it captures. It is a film with a thorough understanding of what it means to only connect. ()


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