Editor’s Notes: Cinemanovels opens in Toronto this Friday, July 18th, at Carlton Cinema.
Cinemanovels, the title of the new film written and directed by Terry Miles, anagrammatizes as “Nice man loves” or, as I prefer, “Nice loves, man” (or even, if you want to get adventurous, “Non-slave mice”). I tell you this not because these word jumbles have any bearing on the plot or themes of the film, but because, in spite of their banality, they are a heck of a lot more interesting than anything that happens in the film. Cinemanovels wastes an interesting premise on a drab, dull, tedious film.
Cinemanovels wastes an interesting premise on a drab, dull, tedious film.
What a shame, because the set up is rather intriguing, a sort of mirror image Stardust Memories. That Woody Allen classic focuses on a dissatisfied filmmaker forced to schmooze his way through a weekend retrospective of his work. Cinemanovels, by contrast, features a woman grappling with the legacy of her estranged father, a genius director whose work she must organize into a memorial retrospective after his death. There’s an alternate universe somewhere where Cinemanovels is a bold, provocative film that explores the effects artists have on those around them (as well as other topics, like the relationship between English and French in the Canadian national psyche). Contra Leibniz, however, this is not the best of all possible worlds, and the film we are stuck with feels cut from a predictable, bland cloth.
Grace (Lauren Lee Smith) finds herself discontent despite the many advantages of her life. She has a doting investment banker husband in Ben (Ben Cotton) and a best friend ready to dispense life advice (Jennifer Beals). Still, she’s unhappy. Grace and Ben are trying to conceive, but she is unsure whether she really wants a child. She battles ennui as she sloughs her way through a leisurely existence. But above all she tries to come to grips with the life of her father, a famed director of existential dramas who abandoned Grace and her mother to shack up with the much younger star of his most famous films. Grace struggles to make sense of her father’s life and work in time for the retrospective, calling on a handsome film editor (Kett Turton) to help her put the pieces together.
From here the movie proceeds exactly as you would expect a mid-budget indie with competent visuals and a jangly score to proceed. How will Grace resolve her ambiguity over having a child? Will she fall for the sensitive editor, or stay true to her loyal but dull husband? Will she explore the depths of her soul and set herself free to soar? Will she find some modicum of peace of mind regarding her philandering father? Most crucially of all, will we the audience ever come to give a crap about any of this?
I can answer that last question definitively: [Spoilers follow] NO. The problems here start with the script, which feels like it could have used an extra draft or three. Much of the dialogue, especially surrounding Grace’s quest for personal fulfillment, feels painfully on the nose; it contains the kind of exchanges you’d expect in a screenplay written by a “precocious” film school student. The problems extend to the plotting of the film too, though, which contains a few too many coincidences to feel convincing (there’s an especially dopey moment that hinges on Grace accidentally dialing her home phone number). Thankfully there’s plenty of clunky symbolism to balance this all out (Grace only wears one slipper around the house! She and Ben communicate through walkie talkies instead of cell phones! Quirkfest!).
Ben Cotton gives a fine performance as Ben, making him by turns overly concerned about his wife and wracked by his own loneliness.
At first I experienced Cinemanovels in a sort of numb haze, blithely indifferent to its shortcomings. Things really started to fall apart, though, when the film starts to show snippets of the films of Grace’s father. This man is treated as a cinematic genius, a sort of Canadian Ingmar Bergman, whose films portray existential angst and sexual longing in mature, penetrating ways. What shows up on screen is… not that, to be sure. The clips feel like some bad Mad TV interpretation of what “foreign” films are like, complete with long slow takes, turgid visuals, and inscrutable dialogue (in French, natch). I kept waiting for Cinemanovels to pull the rug out from under me, to swirl to a grand reveal that, no, actually, this director was a no talent hack. That moment never came: the films are treated with universal awe in the world of Cinemanovels, subject to thesis writing and prestige DVD releases (one nice touch: the films come courtesy of “The Library Collection”, and the visual style of the packaging riffs on the beloved Criterion style). Like the Magician’s Alliance, these films demand to be taken seriously, but they do nothing to earn that respect.
Cinemanovels is not totally deplorable. It features some pretty good performances. Smith gives it her all as Grace, and does a good job conveying her various insecurities (also, if nothing else, she does a fantastic job in the scenes where Grace gobbles up food like a maniac). Ben Cotton gives a fine performance as Ben, making him by turns overly concerned about his wife and wracked by his own loneliness. As mentioned before, the cinematography is perfectly acceptable (as is the editing), though neither are particularly memorable. In the end, though, the film fails because of its script. Better luck next time.
Cinemanovels has an interesting premise that gets bogged down in blasé particulars and clunky dialogue.