‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’

Nostalgia In Reverse

I would have loved to have done a movie double of this film with either ‘The Aviator’ to talk about the amazing Cate Blanchett, or ‘Burn After Reading’ to talk about the versatility of Brad Pitt. Both actors in this film are worthy of study in this film. They sure ‘go for it’ in this film.

One of the first signs of an actor swinging for the fences is when they put on the aged look with prosthetic makeup and sure enough, both Blanchett and Pitt are covered and smothered in the special effects makeup. But getting past that point, what is remarkable about all of this is how seemlessly they stitch together the aging and aging-in-reverse characters as one performance.

David Fincher is is in fine form when the actors appear as unaffected as you can imagine, given the extraordinary premise of the film. The bits he fails are in the mannered narrative where the occasional flashbacks to story elements that don’t belong to Pitt and Blanchett’s characters Benjamin and Daisy. The fluttering exposure effect in the Clock back story was more irritating than fun, while the 7 lightning strikes elicit a laugh but are also gimmicky gags in an otherwise elegant film.

What’s Good About It

There’s quite a bit to like with this film. The directing, the Cinematography, the acting, the design, the attention to detail, the style in most part, all come together as an organic whole. The off-the-cuff absurdity of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s original premise for his short story is painstakingly worked out with a kind of mechanical logic, which is probably why the film starts off with a story about a clock that runs backwards.

It’s a haunting film that seeps into your subconscious, may strange image-driven ideas. I had very strange dreams following the viewing of this film, all of it inflected with the weird materialism of the film. The film is like a meditation on the Twentieth Century Americana, a sort of reverse of the ‘Great Gatsby’ as the characters hurtle towards each other, meet, and then pass each other by through time. More than symbolically, Benjamin’s love interest is called Daisy, and surely this was a conscious choice made by the writer and director.

What’s Bad About It

Not so much bad as ill-fitting are the aforementioned stylistic manner of the clock flashback at the start, but also the reference to the impending Hurricane Katrina disaster. It just isn’t necessary because life-or-death issues in the film cannot be made more profound  by Hurricane Katrina constantly moving towards New Orleans. Whatever it might mean, it just cannot match the meaning that is already living and breathing in the picture.

There is also a slight strain in time and place to get the story to work. I didn’t buy the need to show the Beatles on the screen to show the 1960s were unfolding. It also made the characters just a little too old to be having their first and only child.

These are minor quibbles. Overall, the picture shows a deft hand by a very good director. It’s not quite as good as ‘Fight Club’ or ‘Zodiac’, but this is an eminently watchable film that would bear up to repeated viewings.

What’s Interesting About It

It’s actually a creepy little story when you sit down to think about it in the cold light of day. A guy is born old and grows young through out his life. He meets a girl 5 years younger, who ends up being the love of his life and bears his child. But the earlier moments of their friendship have echoes of pedophilia – only because of the issue of age, where Benjamin is a decrepit looking old due hanging with a young girl, and this reverses to the point where an elderly Daisy has sex with a teenage Benjamin in a hotel room. It opens the door to thinking about age and sexuality without ringing all the alarm bells, though it is hard to see what conclusions one could come to.

The film’s perspective on sexuality is very open. Daisy and Benjamin’s relationship is founded on carnality; as is Benjamin’s other important relationship with Tilda Swinton’s character Elizabeth Abbott. Benjamin even says in his voice over that going to the brothel enforced the importance of work, because it is through earning coin that one gets to afford the pleasure of sex. It’s not every day that an American film openly says, Love is sex, and it’s pretty much tied up with money.

Sexuality is everywhere in this film, you think it’s a meditation on sexuality itself; I guess it’s not surprising that the cycle of birth, life and death feeds back through sex. Yet the film is decidedly un-sexy. The beautiful people that they are, Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett don’t set the screen alight with their sexiness. It’s not exactly ‘Nine and a Half Weeks’. Instead, the film shows a more prosaic boredom with straight Eros and an interest in mild fetishism. It’s as if these characters need the trappings of objects – big beds with mosquito nets, yachts, motorcycles, hotel rooms – just to get it going. All of it with this deeply ironic Americana.

I kept wondering what the film would look like had the characters been Australians instead of Americans. I wondered what ironies would be lost and what would be gained. I mention this because Baz Luhrman wants to make his version of ‘the Great Gatsby’ – yes, it’s a bit like wanting to make your own version of ‘the Godfather’ – and yet David Fincher has gone and made a meta-textual Gatsby through adapting another F. Scott Fitzgerald story. It’s all thought-provoking and that’s good in a movie.

My God, Was That Julia Ormond?

I couldn’t figure out who was playing the grown-up daughter of Benjamin and Daisy. She seemed not particularly good looking or interesting or charming or cute. She looked incredibly plain and if anything, hard-done by age. Sort of like the woman you might see at the flea markets on a Saturday selling pot plants.

When the credits rolled and said Julia Ormond, I thought I’d fall out of my chair. Was this really the woman who played Sabrina and Guinevere? If you wanted an ironic thought about age and aging, that was it right there. It’s a pretty brave performance by her too, you come to realise after leaving the cinema.

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