What to do on a Friday night, besides watch a disturbing and depressing movie? In any event, I have no regrets. Detachment indeed.
There is something about Adrien Brody. Yes, those sad eyes, those redder than red lips, both so delicate and bordering on feminine, separated by a well, hmm, shall we say distinctive nose. His chameleon face allows him to appear frail or strong, intense or giddy, nerdy or roughly handsome. He lends a gravitas to whatever role he plays, and is not only one of the most expressive actors but, at least for me, one of the most believable, pulling me into whatever character he portrays (in the last film I saw of his prior to this one he played the bullfighter Manolete, for The Pianist he learned not how to simulate playing, but how to master Chopin.) Brody not only starred in but produced this movie, normally proof of an emotional attachment to the story, and it shows. The cast is as brilliant as the plot is gut-wrenchingly tragic and hopeless.
Henry Barthes, the main character, has a curious name, which of course recalls the great French philosopher Roland. Both men, one fictional the other very real, mourned the loss of their mothers, and found themselves drowning in the solitude they felt when these abandoned them by dying. Roland Barthes is quoted as saying:
“To hide a passion totally (or even to hide, more simply, its excess) is inconceivable: not because the human subject is too weak, but because passion is in essence made to be seen: the hiding must be seen: I want you to know that I am hiding something from you, that is the active paradox I must resolve: at one and the same time it must be known and not known: I want you to know that I don’t want to show my feelings: that is the message I address to the other.”
The only way that Henry Barthes can find the strength to continue on amidst such desolate hopelessness and solitude is to hide his feelings, to detach. Detachment implies a connection broken, and in this film it seems every character is at one stage or another of this separation from self and other, cementing their own isolation. The film offers a three-week window into an inner-city school and its teachers and students, as well as those connected to them, evidencing a lifetime worth of traumas, past and present. The world is cruel and harsh and unfair, yet there are moments of precious beauty where there is the slightest glimmer of hope that there is a way out. The way out is connection, even love, yet that is precisely what all struggle to avoid, whether by choice or circumstance.
A few years ago, I saw a scrawled bit of graffiti on a wall in Mexico. It was unobtrusive, written with small thin letters, and read “Con mi soledad me moriré.” I will die in my solitude.’ I always imagined who had written it. It could have been anyone, the man smiling on the corner, or the woman carrying the child on her hip, the student hurrying to school. Anyone.
In interviews Brody mentions often that his performance was informed by his own father, who was a professor who taught from the heart, whose passion for teaching and for opening minds can surely be seen in Brody’s portrayal of Mr. Barthes. I suspect this and all of his performances are also influenced by his mother, an incredible artist/photographer with a very particular aesthetic perspective and a gift for telling stories through her images. Brody describes how he grew up with modest means yet had unlimited support and encouragement from his family along with the gift of a good education, all of which he deems fundamental to his successes.
His character lives through what one called a “compassionate detachment,” and his relationship with his students is proof of that. He moves them, they move him, yet neither can truly believe or accept this, and those who do are destined to suffer for its loss. In one of the more moving scenes, he addresses his students in a passage which struck me for its relevancy to all of us, young and old, fortunate or not so, who struggle to make connections in the double-edged sword of this crazy life we live:
“Assimilate ubiquitously. Doublethink. To deliberately believe in lies, while knowing they are false.
Examples of this in everyday life:
…oh, I need to be pretty to be happy
…I need surgery to be pretty.
…I need to be thin, famous, fashionable
Our young men today are being told that women are whores, bitches, things to be screwed, beaten, shit on, and shamed. This is a marketing holocaust. Twenty-four hours a day for the rest of our lives, the powers that be are hard at work dumbing us to death, so to defend ourselves, and fight against assimilating this dullness into our thought processes, we must learn to read. To stimulate our own imagination, to cultivate our own consciousness, our own belief systems. We all need skills to defend, to preserve, our own minds.