Above: Guillermo Arriaga’s directorial debut, The Burning Plain.
(Some light spoilers)
If the competition titles at the 65th Venice Film Festival are anything to go by, then linear narratives have now officially retired. But whether this is a welcome development, remains to be seen. Things kicked off on the Lido in Venice on Wednesday night with the latest film from the Coen brothers, the screwball thriller Burn After Reading. Like the Venice competition titles A Perfect Day (Un giorno perfetto) from Italian director Ferzan Ozpetek and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga’s directorial debut The Burning Plain, the decidedly less serious follow-up to the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men has a plot that involves a large group of characters and stories that are, at times, only tangentially related.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Arriaga – who helped make the paper-shredder approach to narrative a hip alternative with the titles he wrote for Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel) and Tommy Lee Jones (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada) – seems to be the one who knows best how to wring some additional drama from contrasting different stories. Still, it is clear that the novelty has worn off and the gimmick starts to feel a bit stale, especially since the writer-director has resorted to using it to tuck away narrative secrets that he can then pull out of a hat at the right moment (cue the strings). There is a moment when clever storytelling turns into audience manipulation, and Arriaga has reached it here, as have Ozpetek and, to a lesser extent, the Coens.
The Burning Plain tells a story that spans two generations, but as the film opens and the audience becomes acquainted with the large cast of characters, it is not immediately clear that some of the characters are living many years later than others, as the high-contrast cinematography only establishes that they live in different regions of North America. Some of the characters appear twice, in their younger and older versions, but Arriaga seems to hide this fact on several levels: there are no clear temporal markers in the visuals or the music, and one of the main characters uses a different name as an adult (the fact that different actors are used for the different ages only accentuates this divide). The effect is one of initial confusion more than mystery, and when it slowly becomes clear how everything fits together, it feels like a big reveal that takes away dramatic weight and momentum from the final, explosive explanation of the film’s very first scenes. In fact, the real reveal is almost like an afterthought, and, in hindsight, a not very clearly motivated one at that. Still, of the three movies discussed here, it is the most accomplished and dramatically satisfactory title, in large part because the characters feel like real people, even if they are not particularly engaging. The actors, especially the blonde triangle made up of Kim Basinger, Charlize Theron and new face Jennifer Lawrence are impressive, while young actor J.D. Pardo does a lot with an underwritten role.
The characters in the films by Ozpetek and the Coens would wish they had half the – however imperfect – humanity of the people in Arriaga’s film, and while they are at it they might wish they were in better movies, too. In A Perfect Day and Burn After Reading, the major problem at the script level is a simple one: there are either too many or not enough characters fighting for attention, and the way all the stories are connected feels somewhat disingenuous. This is less disturbing in Burn After Reading, which is an odd combination of screwball antics, facial mugging, serial bigamy and CIA mystery, and which could perhaps be labelled as a comedy.
Still, the story of two past-forty gym employees (Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand) who try to clumsily blackmail an alcoholic ex-CIA officer (John Malkovich) after finding a part of his memoirs in their locker room, is so light on character development that something – no doubt unintentionally – funny happens: when a serious moment is introduced, such as when Malkovich’s disillusioned, whiskey-sodden character speaks to his father, it feels like the characters are betraying the screwball, freewheeling film they are in. In Fargo, the Coens found the perfect balance between comedy and pathos, real life and the absurd, but in Burn After Reading (like in Barton Fink), the opposing forces never quite strike a balance.
Proof of the screenplay’s weakness: the so-far unmentioned George Clooney character in Burn After Reading never becomes that film’s Mike Yanagita; a character that has no logical place in the whole but whose omission would make it a lesser film. Clooney’s federal marshal is, in fact, the second connection between the gym trainers and the ex-CIA officer: he beds both McDormand and Malkovich’s wife (an icy Tilda Swinton), but the extremely facile explanation – Clooney is a serial dater who prowls the internet – feels more like an excuse than a case of serendipity or chance that would make sense in this decidedly askew universe.
Chance was one of the major themes of Melania Mazzucco’s Italian choral novel A Perfect Day, which has been adapted for the screen by Ferzan Ozpetek. But in his more streamlined screenplay, co-written by the dean of Italian screenwriting, Sandro Petraglia, chance takes a back seat to an investigation of families – two families, to be precise; too many for a small movie and not enough for a big ensemble piece. The film’s main focus is on the unhappily divorced working-class parents Emma (Isabella Ferrari) and Antonio (Valerio Mastandrea), a focus apparently justified by the explosive ending to their relationship. But the other family, whose paterfamilias is a rich senator (Valerio Binasco) who will go on trial unless he is re-elected, is at least as interesting, with the senator as well as his trophy wife, his 7-year-old daughter Camilla and her idealist law-student brother Aris all given short thrift to allow the post-divorce melodrama more space. The film thus feels lopsided, and the way in which the two families are connected again strains the organic nature of the narrative. The lives of these characters only seem to touch because the characters live in the same movie, not in the same city.
A Perfect Day also shares with The Burning Plain and Burn After Reading an urgent desire for most of the characters to signal their unhappiness through acts of violence, though none of the film offer enough emotional insight to really transform these outward signs of disturbed psyches into understandable, if not condoned, actions.