ONCE upon a time there was an old clockmaker who lived in a city called New Orleans. One day the clockmaker’s son went off to war, and when the clockmaker heard that his son had been killed he was so upset he decided to make the biggest clock he had ever built. He worked and worked on the clock for many years. And at last the great day came when the clock would be unveiled at the railway station. But when it was started a strange thing happened. Its hands kept moving backwards.
Other strange things started happening that day. A famous director, David Fincher, made a film called
. And when people heard this news they looked at each other and said: ‘‘ Fincher? He made all those nasty, scary pictures such as Se7en , Fight Club and Panic Room. Why would he make a sweet, romantic fairytale about someone who is born as a very old man and gets younger all the time?’’
And a wise man replied: ‘‘ Because this is a great part for Brad Pitt. He plays Benjamin throughout his whole life and his performance is so clever he will win a magic Oscar in the land of Hollywood. And Fincher might win an Oscar, too. And Cate Blanchett, who plays the girl Benjamin loves, might win an Oscar. Then the picture will make lots of money and everyone will live happily ever after.’’
Perhaps this is too cynical a tone to be adopting at Christmas. Fincher’s fairytale is indeed beautiful and charming, a visual tour de force, and may turn out to be Hollywood’s most popular and successful fantasy since Forrest Gump. That film, too, was written by Eric Roth; and while it would be stretching things to say that Benjamin is another Forrest, both films are about lost souls drifting through a surreal historical panorama. Wars are fought, presidents come and go, Louis Armstrong songs give way to the Beatles on the soundtrack.
Roth’s source for Benjamin Button was a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, written in the 1920s and inspired ( the studio tells us) by some words of Mark Twain: ‘‘ Life would be infinitely happier if we could be born at the age of 80 and gradually approach 18.’’ I find that a very dubious proposition, but let’s go along with it for now.
There is something macabre in Benjamin’s story, and I suspect it appealed to Fincher’s taste for the violent and bizarre.
How, I wondered, would he handle the birth of an old man? Would Benjamin emerge, adult and fully formed, from his mother’s womb, a feat that would test even Fincher’s imagination and the ingenuity of his make-up crew, or would Benjamin be born as a normal-sized infant who turns into an old man before he starts getting younger?
As it happens, the logical and anatomical difficulties presented by the story’s premise are deftly solved. And while it doesn’t do to take a literal-minded approach to magical happenings, I can say that the early scenes are wonderfully spooky: the monstrous Benjamin ( whose mother, mercifully, has died in childbirth) is a wizened, stunted creature who takes his first clumsy steps at the instigation of a revivalist faith healer. His father, having planned to drown him as a baby, leaves him on the steps of a retirement home run by Queenie ( Taraji P. Henson), a black angel who overcomes her initial revulsion and brings up Benjamin as her own.
And so to the main story. When Benjamin is still a very old man ( a four-year-old virgin, let us say) he meets a little girl called Daisy. The two are drawn to each other, enjoy the same bedtime stories and have a secret hiding place. ( Dangerous territory, this — hinting at sexual possibilities between an old man and a child without showing anything — but I said the film was clever.)
And while Daisy is growing up to be Blanchett and a famous ballet dancer, Pitt is growing down to be an ever younger Pitt. Their paths cross again and they fall in love at much the same age. Meanwhile, Benjamin’s guilt-ridden dad has become a millionaire; Benjamin has been to Moscow and had a sad encounter with the lonely wife ( Tilda Swinton) of a British diplomat; and back in the US he has joined the crew of a tugboat and been swept off to war.
All the while he’s changing from a wrinkled old codger into someone who looks at first like Philip Seymour Hoffman playing Truman Capote, then a passable likeness of Kevin Rudd, then a young Paul Newman, then a leatherjacketed heart-throb with golden tan and a face like a teenage Marlon Brando. Can he look any younger? Yes, he can.
Several child actors play Benjamin in his last years. I should add that Daisy’s story is told in flashback while the old lady is dying slowly in a hospital bed in New Orleans, watched over by her daughter ( Julia Ormond) while Hurricane Katrina is raging outside in all its fury.
I’m making it sound complicated, but really it’s not. And of course it’s impossible to resist. A sweet-natured philosophical message is thumpingly delivered at the end, but everything is narrated with incomparable bravura in gloriously fluid style.
Blanchett reminds us just how good an actor she can be ( is she really dancing in some of those scenes?) and Pitt, with a minimum of lines and many a soulful gaze, never lets us down. Francis Ford Coppola, who made that recent clumsy and pretentious supernatural fantasy, Youth Without Youth , about a man who remains perpetually young after being struck by lightning, should see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and eat his poor old heart out.
* * * WRITTEN and directed by Philippe Claudel,
is a small, lovely film from France. Juliette ( Kristin Scott Thomas), hard, wary, withdrawn, returns to Nancy after a long and unexplained absence to live with her younger sister Lea ( Elsa Zylberstein). The arrangement is not welcomed by Lea’s husband, though their two small daughters ( adopted in Vietnam) are thrilled to have an aunty who plays the piano.
It is some time before we discover that Juliette has been in prison for a terrible crime and later still before we learn what her crime was. These delayed disclosures lend the film a certain tension, even a touch of mystery, but they feel contrived. It seems unlikely that Juliette’s family, least of all her adoring sister, would not have known of Juliette’s deepest feelings or the true motive for her crime.
But Claudel can still touch us deeply. Scott Thomas, who lived for years in Paris, gives a flawlessly judged performance. Claudel directs at close range, rarely moving beyond the family apartment, content to let his camera dwell on troubled faces, the fleeting smiles and telling outbursts of long-suppressed passion that reveal an infinite range of moods, the little moments of hope and consolation that can restore the saddest hearts. The film is a joy.
Glorious time: Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett shine in the charming fantasy The Curious Case of Benjamin Button