Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
The consciousness of an acclaimed philosophical novelist is lost to Alzheimer’s disease. What to emphasize in telling the story? The writer’s work? Her relationship with her husband? The humiliation of regressing to an infantile unawareness of the world and its expectations? Or the writer’s active sex life as a young woman?
Iris Murdoch devotees may suggest that Richard Eyre’s Iris makes a bit too much of the last. After all, the film opens with both the young and the old Iris swimming in the murky river of reminiscence, and the younger one—impersonated by the unabashable Kate Winslet—is stark naked. The screenplay, written by Eyre and Charles Wood, further sexes up two incidents from Elegy for Iris, a memoir about Murdoch (played in her later years by an eerily authentic Judi Dench) by her husband, John Bayley (Hugh Bonneville as the younger man and Jim Broadbent as the older). In one, the older Bayley’s “elegant girl in a bikini” who passes by on a boat becomes a less elegant girl wearing only the bottom half of a bikini. In the other, the younger Bayley’s suspicion that luncheon host Maurice Charlton (Samuel West) is “rather in love with Iris” becomes John’s dismayed glimpse of Iris riding Maurice in bed.
Those moments aren’t strictly necessary, but Eyre (whose own mother had Alzheimer’s) was wise to choose eros over thanatos. Like Bayley’s book, Iris is not principally about the period after Murdoch began to fade. By shifting frequently between the ’50s and the ’90s, the movie disrupts the downward slide that, though medically accurate, would have made for dismal and predictable viewing. (Compare Bille August’s A Song for Martin, which becomes a wallow in Alzheimer’s-related indignities.) Iris risks being too lightweight, but that’s preferable to the crushing sentiment of a disease-of-the-week movie.
The dramatic crux of the tale is the shift in power in the couple’s relationship. Iris was older and more experienced than John, who—if Elegy for Iris is to be believed—managed to complete a pre-university stint in the British army without losing his virginity. (In the movie, at least, Iris is also more physically attractive than her chunky, balding suitor.) For most of their lives together, Iris was the more famous, writing successful novels while John taught at Oxford and published the occasional critical study. At the end, though, Iris required full-time attention, which John alone provided until three weeks before her 1999 death, when he moved her to a nursing home.
Iris depicts this shift with simple vignettes of everyday life. The script can be overt, notably in the early scene in which innocent young John, trailing worldly young Iris on a bicycle, cries, “I can’t keep up with you.” But generally the touch is lighter, as when the befuddled older Iris abandons a TV kiddie show and slips away from the house, leaving behind an unaware John and the announcer, who wonders, “Where have the Teletubbies gone?” The sci-fi immaculateness of the medical center where Iris gets an MRI contrasts with the increasingly slovenly cottage where the couple lives, and Tony Blair’s blathering about “education” disturbs Iris, who was discussing a similar topic when her thoughts derailed.
The narrative’s system of flashbacks is familiar from other attempts to capture the vagaries of human memory, yet without the ominousness such devices often express. The film could have been darker, noisier, and longer—it runs only about 90 minutes, short for a wasting-malady flick—but that’s not what Eyre intended. Warm and gentle, if inevitably oversimplified, Iris is not a tragedy but, appropriately, an elegy.
Like the other elaborate comedy currently featuring bug-eyed gamin Audrey Tautou, Happenstance has a much longer name in French. The film known to Americans as Amelie was originally titled The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain, and the newer movie (actually made before Amelie) was dubbed The Beating of the Butterfly’s Wings. That title is in fact less accurate than the English one, because the story traces not the ripples from a single event—the proverbial butterfly whose gentle motion eventually creates a hurricane—but a series of overlapping coincidences. Still, the wordier monikers do convey something of the character of these films: Both revel in an extended succession of contrivances.
In Amelie, Tautou plays the title character, who steps into the role of Fate and rearranges the lives of neighbors and acquaintances. In Happenstance, Tautou is Irene, just one of the many Parisians who are subject to the whims of coincidence in a city that’s more multiculti and less Looney Tunes than Amelie’s. The film takes place on a single day, the day on which Irene—a horoscopereading fellow Metro rider informs her—will meet her true love. Of course, her true love is sitting near her on the train: Younes (Franco-Algerian rai star Faudel) is a waiter who will realize that there’s a connection between Irene and him just as the Metro doors close behind her. They won’t see each other again until it’s almost time for the end credits to roll.
In between, Irene and Younes encounter many other people, who have connections to still many more: There’s a compulsive liar who’s about to apply for a job as a museum guard and who won’t help another Metro passenger—who just happens to be Younes—assist a homeless man who’s fainted. There’s a man who can’t decide if he should leave his wife for his lover, who’s pressuring him to make a choice. There’s a love-struck woman who asks her roommate—who just happens to be Irene—to vacate their apartment for the evening so she can be alone with an old beau she’s just met again by (of course) chance. There are an old woman who decides to return a coffee maker to a suburban appliance store and the man who intervenes to help her, in the process causing a clerk—Irene again—to be fired. And there’s the woman who demands that a cafe patron—that would be Younes—buy her a drink and then starts insulting Algerians. Each of these characters is a set of butterfly wings, fluttering momentously.
Writer-director Laurent Firode, whose feature debut this is, credits the influence of Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges and Wojciech Has’ The Saragossa Manuscript, a 1964 tales-within-tales flick that beguiled hippie-era pot smokers. Yet Happenstance is closer in spirit to Arthur Schnitzler’s Reigen, a play best known as the source of Max Ophuls’ La Ronde, the precursor of dozens of movies with ostentatiously episodic structures, including Slacker. Firode doesn’t rigorously connect each scene to the next, but the effect is similar. Life is a sloppy series of arbitrary connections, the movie demonstrates, although that doesn’t prevent it from ending on a tidy note.
Firode’s film is a comedy in the classical sense: It turns on coincidences and concludes happily. But it’s not full of laughs and—like Amelie—is a little too labored to achieve liftoff. It does purvey a French existentialist’s (or surrealist’s) idea of fun, however, by contrasting its horoscope consulters, palm readers, and tarot-card diviners with people who consciously submit to aleatory judgments: A bartender collects good karma by not chasing a customer who didn’t pay his bill, a woman evaluates a new acquaintance by rearranging the letters in his name, and a man makes a major decision based on a stranger’s ability to hit a statue with a pebble. Happenstance allows benevolent fate to unite its central characters but abandons everyone else to a capricious universe. CP