Being Human (1994) is really something. Bill Forsyth's Hollywood career was essentially ended by it, and I get the impression that this was not so much because the film died at the box office, but because the experience of having it taken away from him—a first for a director who had enjoyed very good relationships with his producers up to that point—was so dispiriting.
Forsyth's star had risen steadily from "the first no-budget film," That Sinking Feeling, through the charming Gregory's Girl and the poetic Local Hero. If Housekeeping and Breaking In weren't hits, they were certainly admired.
I recall reading that the studio recut the film (I believe the once-great
Deedee Dede Allen had become the "film doctor" at Warners specializing in performing such disfiguring operations without anesthetic) and it performed just as dismally with test audiences as it had in the Forsyth cut, so they kindly released that. Not quite, though: a voice-over, indifferently read by Theresa Russell, had been grafted on, which does quite a bit of damage. It's hard to estimate how much, without an audio option that would allow us to click it off. But you can definitely tell when these things have been written afterwards.
Forsyth deploys a variation on a narrative approach not seen since Griffith's Intolerance and Keaton's The Three Ages: a story is fragmented across history, so we meet five men called Hector, all played by Robin Williams, all struggling, or thinking about struggling, in wildly different ways, to be reunited with their children. Instead of intercutting as Griffith did, Forsyth tells each story in a oner, starting in a caveman period and running through ancient Rome, medieval Europe, a Renaissance shipwreck on the African coast, and ending in modern America. You can have fun finding connections between the storylines, though the voice-over does its best to ruin this fun by pointing them out, but most of them are quirky (shoes!) and not that much help if you're looking to discover what it's all about.
"Can anyone tell me what this film is supposed to be about?" demanded Warners head Terry Semel after an unsuccessful test screening. Forsyth leaned forward to speak. "Not you," snapped Semel.
Forsyth had started out interested in experimental film, before getting into drama, with classic Hollywood comedy as an influence. But his experimental, non-narrative interests started to reassert themselves, along with a love of Bresson. And he'd never been a fan of plot, fighting to keep his storylines as far in the background possible, to concentrate on character. With this film, he was hoping the audience wouldn't worry about what was going to happen next. He was trying to eliminate anticipation from the filmmaking experience.
At first, it doesn't seem likely to work. The first, wordless episode seems to accomplish very little: Williams is a primitive man whose family runs off with another tribe. It certainly doesn't have any laughs, and not much character gets expressed. But it sets up one part of the premise: the various successive Hectors in the film spend their time trying to reunite with their respective children, though the circumstances of their separation vary from segment to segment.
In the second chapter, things get a lot more interesting. Williams is a slave in ancient Rome. John Turturro is his master. The design and feel are a little reminiscent of Fellini Satyricon, which is a film where anticipation is pretty successfully stamped out, come to think of it. And there's some very funny black comedy and some just plain strange tonal movement: highly uncommercial but by no means bad. Really intriguing, in fact.
Then the medieval Hector is trudging through Europe trying to get back to his family, with an Italian widow offering a speedy substitute: why do all that traveling when you could just join a ready-made family? Some weird black comedy as the couple couple a few feet away from a corpse: this is really the first Forsyth film with sex and a body count.
Shipwrecked on the African coast, Renaissance Hector is more concerned with apologizing to an ex than in rescue, as the group of survivors dwindles due to bad eggs, mutiny, and starvation. This is the bleakest episode of all and it's quietly, desperately hilarious. A universal theme of the movie, and of Forsyth's work in general, begins to emerge forcibly: nobody understands anybody else. As mutineers are being hanged (by a boyish Ewan MacGregor), observing nomads mistake this for a human sacrifice in their honor. And the "gallows," a repurposed crucifix, tips over, adding tragic slapstick to the situation.
This is my favorite episode, if episode is the right word here. They're all ineffably parts of some kind of whole. Maybe because the stakes are so great here, the inevitable doom staring these characters down so grim, it's easiest for Forsyth's characters to ignore the story, in a very Forsythian way, so that we have the perfect combination of an unspoken suspense generator and a lot of characters bumbling about, going nowhere. It's like Local Hero with the Grim Reaper instead of the oil industry. Which makes a difference.
In the modern setting, Williams is at last reunited with his kids. In this timeline, the separation was of a very modern sort: divorce. His daughter is one of Forsyth's typically wise kids, just about the only adult mind we meet in the film. The sequence is touching, slow-paced, very mildly funny. Forsyth might have no love for story, but he's taken us on a journey.
Williams is remarkable. It's impossible to imagine anyone else, and this is in itself remarkable because he's not working in any of his usual, or unusual modes. (Williams got his Mrs. Doubtfire voice from working on this film, a combination of Forsyth's accent and another crewmember's.) His manic comedy schtick is vanquished. The sentimental mode he sometimes substituted is tamped right down. The bitter, cold or eerily blank qualities he could summon for unsympathetic characters absent. Instead, he's mild, real, small, and he exemplifies the title. What a loss he was.