July 08, 2006

Proof

Proof is an extraordinary achievement of true and literal first-person cinematic storytelling. It deals with a woman at a moment of severe emotional instability, questioning everything about her life and putting the pieces together as the film does. That woman is Catherine. With the passing of her genius mathematician father, she must decide whether to rejoin the outside world or sever ties with it forever. But she is so beaten down by the shadow of her father's genius (and mental illness), so flattened by the manipulations of a sister that casually undercuts her at every turn, the decision becomes increasingly complicated as the stakes rise with each new scene.
The film's non-linear editing brought me inside her shattered state of mind; the film only allows its audience to trust her, in any given moment, as much as she trusts herself. A second viewing therefore became a totally different experience. The film transformed into an instantly objective third-person narrative in which my more complete understanding justified and deepened the actions and behaviour of the characters. It is a credit to director John Madden – who previously directed Auburn’s play on the London stage – that everything holds together so well through that alternative lens. It’d be a criminal act to reveal whether Catherine is sane, partially crazy, or completely crazy. Instead I promise that, going through the film again, each scene built off the others to reinforce the truth. Even if the film never comes out and literally says it, there is the satisfaction of a definitive answer to work forward from.
There’s an arch sort of humour that a film all about mathematicians – eventually centered on a titular mathematical proof even – has virtually nothing in the way of actual mathematics. Math is the MacGuffin that guides the characters, raising walls between some and building bridges between others. Catherine connects through her father primarily through their shared mathematical genius, and it is that symbiotic relationship between his genius and his illness that causes the proof to haunt her so. If the proof is hers, she is of her father’s magnitude, clearly with his genius and likely also with his instability. But if the proof is his, her own memory is so undependable as to render her insane already. So it’s safer for her to keep it locked safely away, even as she lives with it — literally and emotionally — every single day. When a young protégé of her father’s slowly liberates her from her own mounting insecurities, she trusts him to bring that proof back out into the open. Everything she is and could be hangs on what he does with that proof.
There are many people out there in the world beaten down by those who might also love them. Beaten down by the formidable presence of their families’ booming personalities, beaten down by the way those they trust chip away at their self-confidence by saying: "You're instincts are wrong. For your own good, do it my way." And once they're beaten down sufficiently, they don't need the outside influences anymore to cause them pain. Once we grow to distrust ourselves enough, our own self-doubt provides plenty of anxiety to feed back into itself. Once someone gets to that point, robbed so completely of a foundation on which to build his sense of self, what can bring that person back? Proof has one suggestion, optimistic and compelling in the right sort of ways — ways that, ironically enough, mathematics can't account for. ()

  - ADAM LENHARDT

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