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Friday, June 16, 2006
Personal to the point of painful
By KAORI SHOJI
"Stay" is probably the most personal of filmmaker Mark Forster's ("Monster's Ball," "Finding Neverland") works. The title intrigues since it sounds like Forster's hidden plea -- to remain, to stop and reconsider before taking a final, irrevocable plunge. According to his bio (published in the production notes), the director lost his older brother to suicide when he was still a child. "Stay with me" is a recurring line in the movie and it would seem that Forster is quite simply saying exactly that.
Yet suicide isn't the main theme here. It is the power of destiny. Characteristically, Forster offers no solution, just poses problems in the foreground while a series of events, random at first, gradually gather and spiral into a preordained conclusion.
One of the first scenes shows a young man announcing to his psychiatrist that he intends to kill himself in three days, which in turn sets off a chain of inexplicable events in the doctor's own life. On the other hand, the psychiatrist is familiar with people wanting to take their own lives: His girlfriend (a former patient) was suicidal and the many scars on her wrist show how close she came to fulfilling the urge. No one talks about motive so much as method and an inner conviction that it will, or must, happen -- all that remains is to choose the time to carry out the actual action. In the case of the young man, he chose his day so as to share it with the demise of his favorite painter ("It's got to be Saturday!"). Out on the street, he passes a little boy who looks at him before asking his mother, "Mommy, is that man going to die?" with an insistence that suggests it can only be a rhetorical question.
Set in Manhattan, "Stay" is strange and dreamy, full of visual tricks both subtle and stunning. The psychiatrist will look out the window to a bench in a courtyard. The camera will follow his gaze and in the next moment the bench will be occupied by the psychiatrist and his girlfriend having lunch. In one scene, a cantankerous subway passenger tells a young man to stub out his cigarette; in another, the same passenger is a bookstore and gallery owner who greatly admires the young man's art works (he's an art student).
"Stay" draws excellent performances from its compact cast: Ryan Gosling underplays the enigmatic, suicidal Henry so that his emotions are always several shades shy of maudlin, and Ewan McGregor also brings subtlety to the difficult role of Dr. Sam Foster, who becomes so fascinated by Henry that he practically stalks his patient in an attempt to understand him (and thereby save him). Naomi Watts plays Sam's girlfriend, Lila, who's also an artist and hides her self-destructive impulses behind a veneer of watchful reticence. This ensemble is effective, but curiously fragmented -- Sam is always on the verge of catching up with Henry, who leaves a trail of clues as to his personality and whereabouts, but they rarely occupy the same frame. Lila also spends a lot of time alone in the apartment she shares with Sam, and on occasion they share a conversation over a take-out Chinese before Sam is up and off again, in search of Henry's shadow.
The glitch to "Stay" is that it may be too personal. A story this close to the director is hard to swallow for a general audience. And structurally/visually speaking, there's nothing in "Stay" that hasn't been done before by David Lynch and Co., and before that by Hitchcock. If this was the 1950s, a notice would pop up before the end credits asking the audience not to give away the ending. Having said that, there's still a lot here that enthralls and provokes. The most obvious and possibly delightful detail is the diminished length of Sam's pants: For some incredibly gauche and unexplained reason Sam dresses in tight tweed jackets and yellow trousers that prominently display his ankles and socks (I think I glimpsed argyle in one scene) and goes to work over the Brooklyn Bridge riding an antique bicycle last seen on "New Cinema Paradise" or something. Throughout the story, though, there isn't a single mention of Sam's wardrobe style -- a brilliant stroke of nonsense thrown into an otherwise deftly calculated landscape.