This week sees Sally Potter‘s new film released in UK cinemas (still wonderful to write that after so many months of uncertainty) a week after Charlie Kaufman‘s I’m Thinking of Ending Things debuted on Netflix. The links between the two are slight at best, you might say, but the similarities are actually quite close as both films deal with mental illness, and how we process such challenging times. Indeed, both for the sufferer – whose pain we can never fully comprehend – and the carers around them, being presented with such obstacles are unthinkable but out of the pain and suffering can come love and compassion.
A personal story that Potter has wanted to tell for many years, it’s based on her brother’s troubles with dementia and how it changed him and those around him in ways they couldn’t have foreseen. The film tells the story of Leo (Javier Bardem), himself in a critical stage of his dementia and, sadly, a shadow of the man he used to be. Today, on the day we follow him, his daughter Molly (Elle Fanning) is visiting to help take him the dentist’s but his mind, as you can imagine, is elsewhere, gazing through his fractured mind at alternative lives, what if’s and if only’s, mainly around his ex-wife Dolores (Salma Hayek) and the mistakes he made during their time together.
Delving deep into Leo’s mind, the film could almost pass for science fiction given the way Potter’s story weaves through the different narrative strands and charts the mind of someone suffering from this debilitating and unpredictable disease as it tries to weave through the complex map of the human mind. And, for some of the film, it works: we see memories, dreams, wish fulfilments, and the endless possibilities of which our brains are capable, all told through the beautiful lens of Robbie Ryan’s exquisite camera work.
But what is a wonderful exercise in images fails, strangely and frustratingly, to deliver much connection with the characters and we feel detached from them as we go on this journey. Bardem, charismatic and commanding as ever, brings power and delicacy to Leo but we never delve deep enough into his pain and heartbreak as it would like us to. Indeed, Fanning is excellent as the supportive and frustrated Molly but we barely see enough of her inner workings to care, nor those of Hayek’s elusive former love.
Potter is always an exciting and provocative filmmaker and while this story feels personal and you sense her connection to it, it never really connects to us as an audience. Although the performances are also uniformly great, they struggle to make their mark similar to their characters on screen and circumvent what is ultimately a touching yet disjointed affair.