This is a big, thoughtful and significant film and, as such, I think it deserves some thoughtful and significant column inches here. As do the one or two matters arising, which I’ll deal with after I look at the film itself.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button starts playfully – with a cascade of buttons forming the studio logo like a mosaic, which is not inappropriate since this film is essentially one long, luxurious mosaic of roughly connected scenes which combine to create a portrait of a man who is born very old and lives his whole life gradually getting younger.

It begins in New Orleans in 2005, on the eve of Hurricane Katrina when the historic, mysterious old city is on the cusp of being swept away. Storms run as a motif throughout the film, both natural and literal – like Katrina – or man-made and metaphorical – like World War.

The story then looks back through the previous ninety-odd years. It doesn’t restrict itself solely to New Orleans but, when it does wander away for the occasional protracted aside, it eventually returns loyally home as we all, eventually, return to that from which we reputedly came.

The framing narrative concerns the last few hours on this Earth of Daisy Fuller, explaining her life to her daughter, Caroline, before it’s entirely too late. She begins with an apocryphal tale about Monsieur Gateaux, a blind clock-maker who, during the First World War, builds a clock for the local railway station – a clock which runs backwards. This is his commemoration to his son who, like so many millions of others, was cast away needlessly on the battlefields of France and Belgium. This then offers up a wonderfully-executed visual moment where the film runs backwards, shells unexplode and innocent soldiers undie. This tells us that the nature of the whole film is that of fable and a wistful acceptance of the passage of time. It also shows us that we are going to see some skilfully executed visual audacity over the next 2¾ hours.

Seemingly Daisy’s only possession is a diary, that of one Benjamin Button, from which Caroline, sitting at her mother’s bedside, reads in a motif which bears more than a passing resemblance to The English Patient (1996). With this film as with that, the diary then occupies us for the remainder of the film.

Benjamin was born on the day the first war ended and, in careful observation of Joseph Campbell’s rules, as subscribed-to by most every Hollywood script-writing course this side of Star Wars, his mother dies and his father rejects him, leaving him an orphan abandoned on the steps of an old-folk’s home. Here he is rescued from the bull-rushes (as it were) by Queenie, the young black servant of the house, who instantly takes pity on the old-born.

The boy was born shrivelled and twisted and ancient, riddled with arthritis and given just days to live. But days turn to months which turn to years in the old folk’s home, surrounded by people who are both vastly older and slightly younger than he. The film makes the point that the very young and the institutionalised ancient have much in common.

When Benjamin (now the equivalent of a toddler) starts exploring the home in his wheel-chair, the shrivelled and shrunken enfant terrible becomes something of a surreal creation, drawn at a different scale to the people around him and, of course, heading in a different direction. His huge head wobbling on his tiny frail form, he looks like something out of Chris Cunningham nightmare. Brad Pitt is all-but unrecognisable under the layers of prosthetic and CGI and, presumably, we won’t know quite what is and isn’t him until we get to watch the making-of documentaries on the three-disc Blu-Ray version which will, no doubt, come out in time for Christmas.

These early/late years are dealt with in lavish detail, giving us time to absorb the odd, faintly hallucinogenic air of the film. The other end of his life, mind, is dealt with in little more than a handful of snapshot moments as we head towards the tale’s inevitable denouement, like a car rolling uncontrollably down a hill. Fincher affords Benjamin the consideration he has extended to his other characters by giving the screen-time to his life, rather than his death.

There is what, at first, seems to be a castaway attitude towards death herein. Apart from Daisy herself, the other characters Benjamin meets who die generally do so suddenly. However, alongside this unemotional acceptance of death, comes a celebration of life.

Eventually a teenage/mid-sixties Benjamin cuts the ties and heads off to sea to see the world alongside Captain Mike Clock in his valiant little tug-boat. And so, as the innocent goes abroad, we are reminded almost inescapably of Forrest Gump – another simple man wandering through a colourful world. Fincher would seem to have taken Zemeckis’ crown as the director who is master of sewing extraordinarily complex special effects invisible into the fabric of his films to create a heightened, magic realism. He’s certainly taken his script-writer, since Eric Roth wrote both films (although, it’s worth pointing out, he’s written a wide range of other movies in-between).

Like Mr. Roth, everyone Benjamin meets has a story to tell from which he is, presumably expected to derive a life lesson. In a ram-shackle hotel called The Winter Palace in a suitably snow-bound Russia, Benjamin falls in love for the first time but, in-keeping with the trajectory of his life, this relationship, with a frostier-than-usual Tilda Swinton, takes place entirely during the night-shift, when they are the only two awake in the building.

This is a mature work for Fincher, whose technical abilities have progressively been matched by his creative ambition and his narrative skills since he really started to get it all together with Fight Club some ten years ago. Since this film was quicker to make than Zodiac (2007), it would seem that this tale came to him more easily, yet his lightness of touch is admirable. There is a butterfly-effect-type scene where one event leads to another and so on through several iterations, all making the point, which I’m sure we’ve all mulled-over at one-time-or-another: What if I’d got up late and missed that train or turned that corner and never met that person … how different would my life be?

The special effects are not used to create spectacular set-pieces or toy-manufacturing opportunities, but to paint in the details of a world-spanning, century-encompassing tale with beautifully-rendered detail.

I was particularly taken with the scenes featuring Benjamin in his sixties / twenties where we are presented with the Brad Pitt we remember from Thelma and Louise (1991) and A River Runs Through It (1992). Throughout these brief scenes Brad the-most-beautiful-man-in-the-world ™ Pitt is seen in shadow … not because Fincher couldn’t have CGI’d him up a storm but more, I suspect, to reflect the fact that, even as life’s wear-and-tear falls away from him, he is accelerating towards a point when he will no longer even be an adult, something which Benjamin himself is all-too aware of in the final chapters of the tale.

Clearly this film is a celebration of life, all life, however brief and complicated and abnormal it may appear. I think, if one could boil-down the meaning of this movie into one pocket-size aphorism, it would be the line from the character who repeatedly tells Benjamin: “I ever tell you I been hit by lightnin’ seven times?” On the final announcement of this, he adds, thoughtfully: “ S’God’s way o’ tellin’ me I’m lucky to be alive!” There’s a line that would not have seemed amiss coming out of the mouth of Red in the exercise yard of Shawshank prison. I can think of no greater complement.
Directed by: David Fincher.
Written by: Eric Roth.
Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Tilda Swinton and Jason Flemyng.
Cert: 12A
Dur: 165 mins
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1921)

Having looked at the movie, I thought it worth-while going back to look at the source material of which, I confess, I’d previously never even heard. Since it’s only a short story, it’s a relatively brief read, but offered up these thoughts:

It has often been said that short stories are a better root-source of movie scripts than entire novels, because developing a short subject into a feature-length piece gives you room to add … while converting a full novel is more a matter of removal. Well, with Benjamin Button, much has been added and removed.

The film bears a resemblance to the original story which follows the same trajectory and, indeed, clocks up many of the life experiences just, inevitably, in less detail. There is a mischievous, one could almost say cruel humour about the story’s early chapters, which is not really reflected in the film, but the middle and later years very much follow the tone of the story, building on the air of sadness and the juxtaposition of the long-sought-for youth and the jarring knowledge of its temporariness. Children should be confident and carefree, it is, after all, the only chance they’ll have to be so. But Benjamin’s childhood is tinged with regrets and nostalgias that ruin it for him.
Something else the short story deals with in a very different way is in the way those around Benjamin relate to him. In the film he is rejected outright, then grows in people’s affections. In the story, Benjamin’s father stands by his son and, gradually, all are won over by the perky old man. Although his circle changes as he goes through the chapters of his life, he adapts, but he is unable to remain in anyone’s company for long because the change is too much. His wife and he become estranged when he cannot accept the age difference between them. Revealingly, she is attracted to him as an older man yet when she is the older woman he is repelled by her. His own son becomes increasingly embarrassed and enraged by him, especially when he gets to the point that his father is younger than him. And there is a tragic lack of understanding amongst those who are nearest and supposedly dearest to him … they all think he is aging in reverse deliberately just to be awkward and thusly have no sympathy. None of this is reflected in the film. Indeed, the film’s Benjamin avoids being a parent for this very reason.

The closing bars of the story are no less affecting than those of the movie; We accompany Benjamin as he fades into dementia and his achievements disappear even from his own mind, leaving him alone and unloved yet utterly unaware. Almost a century after the story was penned, this is a fate all too common for those who genuinely have lived a full life.
Read the full story here:

Youth Without Youth (2007)

Further, as I watched Benjamin Button, it scratched away at me that it reminded me of something … Forrest Gump, yes, I’d clocked that, but there was something else. Then, as I wrote up my notes – it dawned on me: Youth Without Youth.

Francis Ford Coppola’s return to the director’s chair after an eleven-year absence, shares many themes with Benjamin Button, but its tone is markedly different. It contemplates life in a colder, more analytical way than BB. This film is not shot through with honeyed sepia tones, its palette is more cold greys and blood reds.

Like BB, Youth Without Youth begins with a clock running backwards and we are introduced to Tim Roth’s aged scientist, Dominic, a man whose greatest regret is that he is too old and frail to complete his life’s work: Of finding the root-source of language. Then, in a moment mirrored almost exactly in BB, he is struck by lightening and he really is lucky to be alive! He is covered from head to foot in burns. But, miraculously, the scar-tissue forms a scab cocoon over him and, when he emerges, he is a young man again (well, younger at any rate – Roth cleverly maintains the gait an demeanour of an octogenarian even when playing youthful).

As with BB, the tale begins at a time of war, which Dominic (like Benjamin) is briefly entangled with and, like BB, this can be seen as one of many storms which punctuate the narrative – one of which results in Veronica, his obsession, being likewise hit by lightening and likewise becoming chronologically charged. Although, in her case, the lightning strike allows her to ‘channel’ an ancient princess who speaks Sanskrit.

Weaving in the philosophy of comparative religions, the power of language, the psychology of the human mind under duress and science-fiction elements concerning the Tesla-esque notion of the transformative power of electricity (also touched upon in The Prestige, 2006) this is a cerebral rather melodramatic film.

Less driven by conventional narrative beats than BB, it does tend to wander and you are left wondering exactly what the 69-year-old Coppola is trying to say about a life’s work. Is it, as one suspects, him looking back over his own career and wishing he’d done more?

Maybe, if he feels that his later work has been disappointing compared to the massive artistic and commercial achievements of The Godfathers and Apocalypse Now, if he feels that his life has been anti-climactic, maybe he should glance at the career of Orson Welles, an equally prodigious, equally significant film maker whose early success and subsequent failure is significantly more marked than Coppola’s own.

Surely Francis can take solace from the fact that he isn’t earning a living in his latter years as a voice-over for frozen pea commercials?

Image © Warner Brothers in the UK.

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