The Life Before Her Eyes, the latest film by Vadim Perelman (House of Sand and Fog), opened this weekend in limited release. In part as a response to the negative reviews by a number of critics, Perelman said recently in an interview that he's decided that it's better for audiences to know the ending going in (I did confirm with Perelman that he actually said this, because I was rather surprised that he would). And while I understand Perelman's desire to counter the critical response to the film in this way, I decided to take a look at what the negative reviews actually say.
First, I'm going to largely ignore the reviews (good and bad) that came out of the Toronto International Film Festival last year, because the cut of the film in theaters now is different. So let's look at what critics have to say about the current cut. Let's look at one titled (ever so objectively) "Hollywood and the War on Women", by Prairie Miller over on News Blaze. Miller starts her "review" of the film with a five-paragraph rant that tries to tie films about the Iraq war into a perceived "war against women" in Hollywood, going so far as to make the accusation that this war is fueled, in part, by male directors and producers whose coffers are being drained by alimony and child support payments. Uh, what?
Midway through the sixth paragraph, Miller finally gets down to talking about the film she's ostensibly reviewing (I'm assuming here that Miller is a woman, I could be wrong on that count). After a scant two paragraphs actually talking about the film, in which she seems to have completely missed the entire point of the movie, Miller concludes her rant with this: "What Uma Thurman is doing as the older Diana in this anti-abortion movement propaganda screed masquerading as a teen angst drama, is anybody's guess. All that's missing are the pamphlet tables in the theater lobbies."
I don't know what abortion issues Miller has that would cause her to perceive The Life Before Her Eyes as anti-abortion screed, but she must have seen a different film than I did, or else her view of the film was completely warped by whatever personal issues she brought to the table. What she wrote has no business even properly being called a review of a film; she's far too busy ranting against the Hollywood machine and its conspiracy against women to bother actually critiquing the film as a film. She's not the only one hyper-focused on the abortion angle, though.
Lou Lumerick, writing for the New York Post, starts out his review with this: " ... an overwrought and patently offensive anti- abortion drama ..." before winding up his piece with "Well, it seems the teenage Diana had an abortion - and the business in the ladies' room may be a bit of karmic payback. Yikes." Yikes indeed, Lou, if all you got out of this film was that it's somehow a film centered on Diana's guilt over an abortion. I'd hate to see what some of these critics would take out of reading Sylvia Plath's poem, "Three Women" ("Plath, in this wrenching piece, is clearly trying to guilt out women who have procured an abortion, or lost a pregnancy, while championing motherhood as the only right path for women everywhere!")
Even assuming that Diana's guilt is about her abortion (I don't believe it is, I think it's much more about the friendship between the two girls, and the choice Diana has to make in choosing between herself and her friend), what are we really saying here? That women who have abortions never feel guilt about them? Sorry, but as a feminist myself, I find that patently absurd. Abortion is an emotional issue, even for women who support the right of women to have one. So what? The fact that a teenage character might be feeling some doubt or guilt over an abortion doesn't make it a screed -- it makes it real and honest. The dishonesty here is in pretending that the only kind of pro-female film with an abortion in it has to present abortion as a choice made without thought, without any sense of responsibility, without a twinge of guilt or emotion involved. That's just absurd and insulting.
Lumerick and Miller aren't the only ones mischaracterizing the film as being anti-woman or anti-abortion, though. Maria Garcia, writing for Film Journal International, weighs in with a "Perelman hates women" screed, seemingly unaware that the book on which the film was based was written by a woman.
The other negative reviews seem to hinge on the critics who dislike either the film's heavy use of imagery and metaphor (which, interestingly, many of the same critics did not take issue with in House of Sand and Fog), or the way the film flashes back-and-forth between past and present, or the reveal at the film's ending. Joe Morgenstern, writing a slim two-paragraph review for The Wall Street Journal, opens his piece with this:
Consider this more a consumer warning than a movie review: "The Life Before Her Eyes" will draw you in, then intrigue you, then bore you, then bewilder you, then make you crazy with its incessant flashbacks and flash forwards, and finally leave you feeling like the victim of a fraud.
At least Morgenstern is honest enough to admit that what he writes isn't really a review at all; indeed, he barely delves into the film. So, what? Morgenstern is annoyed because he wasn't able to follow the flashbacks in the film enough to figure out what was going on, and then he's miffed because he didn't see the ending coming?
Jules Brenner's review for Cinema Signals is listed as being negative, but much of what he has to say is actually mixed, and somewhat positive:
The editing is a major player in the construction, along with the director's blueprint for shooting it with the flashback/flashforward sequences in mind--a technical accomplishment that's not as easy as it looks. Perelman pulls it off with very close attention to detail, but involvement is less than it might have been as sympathy gets nicked away by the effort to resolve the associations and meanings. Too much looking for the "ah hah!" moment.
On the other hand, this freewheeling play on time and reality is no waste of time. Wood is superb, exhibiting an exquisitely mature level of acting that includes knowing exactly how to use and control the intrument of her appearance and persona for the ultimate realization of the role -- an attribute common to the best actors, especially when physical attribute is germane to the subject matter.
So basically, Brenner didn't like that the film is full of clues hidden within imagery and metaphor, and that he actually had to pay attention and work a little to figure it out?
Point is, if you just based your decision on whether or not to see this particular film based on the reviews up on Rotten Tomatoes, you'd be doing yourself an injustice, as most of the negative reviews I've read seem to be operating from the assumption that audiences are incapable of handling watching a film that requires an intelligence level above that required to appreciate your average, dense, spoon-fed rom-com.
Yes, The Life Before Her Eyes is more poetry than prose. While it does require that you pay attention to figure out what's going on, personally, I don't see that as a bad thing. I was engaged in the film from start-to-finish, and rather than being annoyed by the ending, I found that it made me want to mull over all those lovely bits of imagery woven throughout, and then enjoy realizing the significance of them once the story had played out.
I think there are a lot of movie fans out there who are sick of having their movies dumbed-down for them, who will enjoy the poetry and symbolism of this film, and who, by the way, will also enjoy the excellent performances, especially by Evan Rachel Wood and Eva Amurri as the younger Diana and her best friend, Maureen. Sometimes, when a film has largely negative reviews, I'm in agreement with this majority. In this case, I'm clearly in the minority, but nonetheless, I'd encourage you to see the film for yourself, and to take the negative reviews with an ample dose of salt.