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Friday, Jan. 6, 2006
Family on the brink due to doting dad
By KAORI SHOJI
It's bee season for the Naumann family, and they're going to get stung. Eleven-year-old Eliza Naumann (Flora Cross) is about to compete in a nationwide spelling bee and her academically ambitious father, Saul (Richard Gere), is ecstatic.
"You could be opening the door to an incredible world," he tells her, and exhorts Eliza to immerse herself in the cabala (his own teaching subject at U.C. Berkeley) so as to "unlock the primal energy" in the sacred letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
Mom Miriam (Juliette Binoche) and teenage brother Aaron (Max Minghella) are decidedly less bee-enthused, for different and private reasons. Miriam apparently feels no emotional or physical connection to her accomplishment-driven husband anymore and very quietly begins to unravel before his eyes (although he fails to pick up any signs). And Aaron, who used to be the favored child before Eliza's spelling genius was discovered, is secretly resentful of his usurped position.
Thus goes "Bee Season," adapted from the much-acclaimed novel by Myla Goldberg, which among other things highlighted the mysticism of spelling and the power of letters.
"Bee Season," the movie, incorporates all of that. When Eliza is given a word to spell, she closes her eyes and immediately "sees" the letters flying around like gentle butterflies, or in the case of the word "origami," a fantastical folded crane comes fluttering through an open window, landing on the correct letters on a wall poster so that all Eliza has to do is say them out loud.
Still, fans of the book may be disappointed by fairly shallow character studies onscreen. Goldberg's book is a fascinating look at family dynamics that revolved -- for better or for worse -- around the father, and though the film does its job of drawing Saul, the other members of the family seem skimmed over in its haste to get back to dear old Dad.
What it does show with clarity is how Saul is an attentive, involved parent and loving husband, but that these qualities have deteriorated rather than tightened the family fabric. Before Eliza's talents surfaced, he used to spend evenings locked in his study with Aaron playing chamber music on their violins while Eliza gets ready for bed and Miriam scrubs pots in the kitchen. (He cooks enormous, elaborate dinners every single night.) Husband and wife meet by the sink and Saul asks Miriam whether she enjoyed the food. "Yes, but 10 pots . . ." Miriam murmurs as she scrubs away. Saul replies jovially: "Ah, but for a dinner like that, come on!"
To the casual observer, Saul must seem dedicated and charming, but in his family circle he's become a subtle pain in the butt with his professional knowledge about everything -- his music, his cabala and those multicourse vitamin-stuffed dinners that he insists are good for the brain.
Miriam's frayed nerves and desperate eyes indicate a strain to which he's oblivious; he'd rather focus on his own and the children's accomplishments.
Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel play on moods, unspoken sentences and fleeting expressions. They draw exceptional, nuanced performances from Gere and luminous first-time actress Cross. As Saul and Eliza barricade themselves in the study, poring over letters, we see dad smothering his daughter and Eliza wavering between wanting to please her dad and wishing to remain her own self. In the end, Eliza cares less about her gift than keeping her family intact.
It's unfortunate that the filmmakers' don't seem too interested in exploring the other two characters, Miriam and Aaron. Their inner turmoils are there, but not given many chances for expression except in banal and fragmented slivers (Aaron, to spite his dad, temporarily joins the Hare Krishnas and Mom is discovered to be a kleptomaniac with a penchant for glittering objects). Miriam especially, could have been a much more compelling character, but Binoche scarcely has enough material to work with and alternates between two modes -- dazed anguish and just plain dazed.
Her one stand-out scene comes when she bursts in on Saul in his study after the children have gone to bed and pins him down on the carpet for a forced, brief sex session. At this moment Miriam seems mysterious and charged with energy; it's the kind of intellectual-woman-turns-on-the-pheremones performance Binoche can deliver effortlessly, but alas, the whole thing is over all too quickly.
Gere, on the other hand, is at the peak of his abilities, which seem to grow more diverse and multilayered with each passing year. No longer the desired love object of the entire female cast, Gere now seems capable of expressing any level of male midlife crisis with utter ease and a certain, trademark panache. If Saul were a woman, she would be a caricature: all wide, Betty Crocker smiles and cupcakes in the oven, overwhelming her family with demonstrations of affection and competence.
But through all of this, Saul's still clueless as to what's really going on. Like when in the middle of the night, Eliza sneaks out of their hotel room (where they are staying while the national bee is being held in the building), goes for a walk and then comes back and falls to a dead faint on the carpet. In the morning, Aaron discovers her lying there and tries to get her up; Saul doesn't even notice, steps out and comes back triumphantly with breakfast laid on a tray, chirping "croissants and orange juice!"
What he really needs to do is spell out i-n-s-e-n-s-i-t-i-v-e.