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Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2002

Lost and found, down by the river

Till Human Voices Wake Us

Rating: * * *
Japanese title: Kiroku no Habataki
Director: Michael Petroni
Running time: 101 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

In French, the consummation of sexual love is called le petit mort (small death). The Vietnamese say love is the equivalent of "dying a little." And Virginia Woolf once wrote that love will kill you, or die of its own accord. Onscreen and onstage, love stories have fingers intertwined with death, from "Love Story" to "Titanic." Despite the fact that we live in age where love is treated as a pleasantry on par with dinner mints, we continue to be drawn to the idea of love as death and vice versa. Could it be that this is because love and death will always be the final frontier, the last impenetrable mysteries? Reminding us of such a question is a film called "Till Human Voices Wake Us."

News photo
Helena Bonham Carter and Guy Pearce in "Till Human Voices Wake Us"

This film is a stunningly mature directorial debut by Michael Petroni, one of the crop of screenwriting talents emerging from -- surprise, surprise -- Hollywood. The script, written by Petroni while he was still an L.A. film school student in 1996, brought him offers from major studios. Petroni, however, wanted to set the story in his native Australia and to take the megaphone himself. The result is a delicate, carefully woven tale of love and loss.

Interestingly, Guy Pearce, who appeared as a man with no memory in "Memento," is cast in this work as a man whose life is nothing but memories. Pearce plays Sam Franks, a professor of psychology at a Melbourne university. Apart from his work, Sam has no interaction with anyone, preferring total solitude. Breaking the rhythm of his days is the news that his father has died. Respecting his father's last wish, Sam brings the body back to their small, riverside town of Genoa for burial. Sam hasn't been there since he he was 15, which was the year his childhood sweetheart Sylvie (Brooke Harman) drowned in the river.

Sylvie had been a romantic girl, though handicapped with a brace on her left leg. The summer Sylvia died, Sam (Lindley Joyner) had been home for the holidays and the two enjoyed an idyllic time, with Sam pedaling Sylvie around on his bicycle. One night he took her to a local dance where she spent a miserable evening sitting outside. Sam coaxed her down to the river and took off her leg brace. In the water, Sylvie could dance as she could not on land. But after rapture came disaster. Sam let go of Sylvie's hand for one moment, and she disappeared. Her body was never found. Sylvie's despairing father (Frank Gallagher) built a boat so that her spirit would not have to wander over the water.

Devastated, Sam spent the next 20 years in silent, private mourning. But on the train ride to Genoa, he encounters Ruby (Helena Bonham Carter) who arouses his interest. The next night he sees her jumping off a bridge into the fated river and manages to save her. When she recovers consciousness, she professes to not remember anything, much less what made her attempt suicide. For him, it's as though Sylvie has come back and given him a second chance. Indeed, so much about Ruby reminds him of Sylvie that he is overcome with the emotions he had kept on ice for two decades.

The title comes from a T.S. Eliot poem ("The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock") and is symbolic of the way Sam has been in a state of living death for the past two decades, accompanied only by Sylvie's memories. No human voices ever disturbed him, but his return to Genoa and revisitation of the events of that night triggers an inner need for liberation.

Pearce turns in an excellent performance as the reticent, self-controlled Sam, harboring a deep and inconsolable sadness. The snag, however, comes with Bonham Carter who it seems has outgrown her signature roles of the complex, romantic and sensitive young woman. As Ruby, she has all three traits on overdrive and pretty soon, the deep tortured line wedged between her eyebrows as she moans "I . . . can't . . . remember . . . anything!" starts to pall. But on the other hand, if Sylvie had grown into a woman of 35, perhaps she would have been like that, struggling to retain her fragile, ethereal beauty and getting a bit unhinged in the process.

The story suggests that Sylvie had foreknowledge of this, and that is why she chose to disappear at the height of her relationship with Sam, still as yet unsoiled by sex and unmarred by daily routine. And maybe for this, Sam was so grateful that he was willing to sacrifice his youth on the altar of her memory. This is the kind of world "Till Human Voices" invites us into: unbearably poetic, unabashedly romantic. And in the end, we are left with the conviction that though death is tragic, survival is even more so.

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