Then Almitra spoke, saying, ‘We would ask now of Death.’ And he said: You would know the secret of death. But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life? From “The Prophet by Khalil Gibran.
At last, the awards season is over and, as expected, “Slumdog Millionaire swept the Oscars and stole the limelight from most contenders.
The most Oscar nominated film this year, David Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, managed to nab only three awards, all in the technical departments. I can’t say I was surprised. In fact, several critics predicted that the film could walk away empty handed.
Despite its considerable box-office success, some critics claimed that most moviegoers feel apathetic towards the $150 million production.
Indeed, “Benjamin – the story of a man who ages in reverse – seemed to be attracting more hostility than admiration. No wonder I couldn’t make up my mind about the film the first time I saw it. I couldn’t escape the comparison with “Forrest Gump, also penned by “Benjamin’s scribe Eric Roth, most critics insisted on making.
I was dazzled by special effects, loved Cate Blanchett’s performance and kept pondering the logic of the narrative which, at times, seemed to falter.
Amid this negative hype, I was certain I had missed something. I decided to watch the film again. This time I was determined to let the film take over, to put myself in Benjamin’s shoes and observe the impact it would have on me.
And then, it just happened; the layers of the story began to peel away. I began to see through Fincher’s meticulously crafted images. Most of all, I left the movie with a heightened consciousness of my own mortality.
The film opens in a New Orleans hospital hours before Hurricane Katrina was to demolish the southern city. Daisy (Blanchett) is lying on her death bed, accompanied by her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond). Daisy hands her daughter an old, rugged diary that once belonged to Benjamin Button, her first and only love. Caroline begins to read the diary, and through a series of long flashbacks, the secrets of Button’s extraordinary story are revealed.
Born in New Orleans in 1918, Button comes out of his mother’s womb with a collapsing body and a face of an 80-year-old man. Terrified by the sight of him, Button’s father (Jason Flemyng) drops him at the doorstep of an old peoples home. The childless, African American young owner of the place (Taraji P. Henson) takes him in and raises him as her own son.
Button encounters a variety of oddball characters, including, most memorably, a man struck by lightning on seven different occasions. Because of his condition though, he can’t seem to form a proper relationship with anyone. Only one person seems to accept him the way he is: Daisy, the granddaughter of one the home’s residents.
As his health steadily improves, he leaves home and joins the crew of tugboat run by a drunken Irish captain. Shortly after, Button finds himself in a battle with a German submarine, falls in love with the wife of a British spy and discovers the identity of his father.
While he never forgets Daisy, he chooses to keep his distance. The two meet again at the mid-point of their lives, when they’re both at the same age.
However, he can’t escape the fact that their relationship can’t last long.
On first viewing, “Benjamin might appear like an original, entertaining story with cool visuals. The reality is, “Benjamin is a sad, multilayered picture with intertwined themes and a highly distinctive visual structure.
Despite its box-office success, the film contains little of Hollywood’s commercial ingredients. It’s Fincher’s most sentimental and gentlest film to date, much more accessible than his last magnum opus “Zodiac. It is, nevertheless, as intriguing and thought-provoking as “Zodiac, “Se7en or even “Fight Club.
“Benjamin is loosely based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920s short story. The film only shares the premise of the original story though. Fitzgerald’s “Benjamin was a comic, poorly written farce; Fincher’s take is the total opposite.
On one level, it’s the story of a natural born outcast trying to find his place in the world; another member of Fincher’s clan of alienated men that includes “Fight Club’s Jack and “Zodiac’s Robert Graysmith.
On another level, it’s a film about memory and the inevitable end to life and love. First and foremost though, “Button is a meditation on time and mortality, about the choices we make in a story with one foreseeable conclusion.
Death looms over the film from the very first frame. Benjamin encounters death from the day he’s born. He experiences loss and grief earlier than the average child. Every experience Benjamin goes through is short-lived; every relationship comes to an abrupt ending. Even in the most blissful moments of his life, death continues to haunt him.
Unlike “Gump, “Benjamin is an intimate story primarily focused on the internal struggle of its protagonist. That’s why the historical events unfolding in Benjamin’s decade-spanning journey are ignored, briefly glimpsed in postcard-like images.
Fincher impeccably exploits the period setting of the story to create the bulk of his images. Several footage, tinted in sepia gradients, hark to the Edison’s travelogues of early cinema; a breathtaking wide shot set against an Arc de Triomphe-like statue has Blanchett and Pitt looking like Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire in a 40s MGM musical. A number of scenes featuring Pitt, sporting a leather jacket on motorcycle, recall Marlon Brando in “The Wild One.
Fincher deconstructs these well-known images to conjure an impressionistic portrait of a time and place we are familiar with yet never lived in or knew; images that bear witness to a time gone by and that are a testament to the power of cinema as an instrument of memory.
At the beginning of the film, Fincher presents a short montage centering on a clockmaker who lost his son in the war. The clockmaker creates a gigantic clock that ticks backwards. The film ends with the same clock, entrenched in the midst of the hurricane.
Throughout the film, Khalil Gibran’s poem “On Death came to mind more than once. “How shall you find death until you seek it in the heart of life?
In a 2003 interview, “Amores perros and “21 Grams director Alejandro González Iñárritu said that life is a series of losses. First we lose the warmth of our mother’s womb, followed by our innocence, virginity, dreams, the loved ones and, finally, our health and life altogether.
To a certain extent, “Benjamin is about this loss, amplified by the story of man more conscious of it than average people.
He discovers that life boils down to the way we choose to lead it, no matter how predetermined it might be. “In the heart of life is the places we see, the emotions we experience, the impact we leave on others and the impact every single person we encounter leaves on us.
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is not a perfect film, far from it. It’s uneven in parts, slightly sappy in others while the romance between Button and Daisy occasionally loses it emotional weight, a territory Fincher hasn’t ventured in before. It’s one of those divisive films you’ll either love or hate. I loved the film with all its imperfections.
Near the end of the film, “Button says: “For what it’s worth: it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same; there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I honestly don’t know what life, death and everything means. But perhaps, as Fincher points out, the two aren’t that inseparable after all.