Curious and curiouser

Everyone who’s reviewed The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has probably made this joke by now, but it certainly is a curious movie. Its starting point is a very slight piece of whimsy published by F Scott Fitzgerald in the early 1920s, but that’s only the starting point — the idea of a man who ages backwards, born old and dying very young.

This is an intriguing idea, used by TH White (who might’ve borrowed it from Fitzgerald, who knows?) for his Merlyn in The Once and Future King. There, the magical impetus is strong, even as White’s Arthurian romance grows ever more adult, moving from cute wizardry to disillusioning grown-up adultery as it proceeds through its four volumes. In The Curious Case —, the magic is inserted into the real world, like the way Woody Allen’s Zelig inserts himself into history. (This is the kind of thing that is often confusingly called “magic realism”.)

There’s also Martin Amis’s novella, Time’s Arrow, in which he tells the story of a man’s life backwards — as though to provide some kind of temporal redemption for its Nazi protagonist. There’s a similar idea in a tale told by the narrator of the framing story of The Curious Case —, where a man whose son has died in World War I makes a clock that runs in reverse, an expression of his wish that time’s arrow should change direction and return to us that which we have lost.

The Curious Case — is apparently about love and loss. We’re told, at some point, that loss is the measure of love — a line borrowed, perhaps, from the more eloquent Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body. At the film’s centre is a strange love story, that of Benjamin (Brad Pitt) and a dancer called Daisy (Cate Blanchett). They first meet when he’s an ancient crock and she’s a child, and they have to bide their time as the years pass and finally they catch up with each other, as it were.

That element of the movie is relatively touching; we all know what it’s like to wait for love, to love someone when the time is not right, or to find the slippage of age making our amatory footholds less secure. Never mind the, er, curious fact that in relation to life itself one can often feel both too old and too young. Those are more resonant notions to play with than the idea that love is eternal, despite such vicissitudes. The Curious Case — toys with the vicissitudes but then appears to come down on the side of love’s eternity, and that weakens it and makes it more conventional.

At any rate, this odd love story takes an awfully long time to unfold (the film is more than two and a half hours long), and it’s embedded in a picaresque storyline and picturesque imagery that throw a lot of distractions at us. That’s the trouble with the individual life story forming narrative structure. As TS Eliot mournfully put it, in turn quoting Joseph Conrad, life is very long.

So the film becomes episodic, with big jumps through time. You wonder what Benjamin was doing in that gap — spending seven years in Tibet, perhaps? Despite the interest of individual episodes (such as Benjamin’s liaison with an upper-crust Tilda Swinton in icy Russia), it fails to build a plot beyond the coming-and-going Daisy-love thread and the reverse-ageing (younging?) process Benjamin mysteriously suffers.

And there, too, distraction abounds. It’s so fascinating looking at the old-young Benjamin, his bald head and wrinkly face expertly computerised on to a child’s body, and wondering exactly how it was done, that it’s very easy to detach emotionally from his tale.

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Question: Who wrote the story on which the film is based?
It’s weird, too, to watch him reach his 20s and start looking a bit like Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris before, another decade or so later, turning into Val Kilmer with specs and a quiff. At last he comes to look like the baby-faced Brad we knew and loved a long time ago, but still you wonder at the CGI airbrushing more than the performance, the emotions, or the story.

There’s a lot in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, perhaps too much. It looks marvellous, in a stylised way, as perhaps befits this kind of fantasy. And it’s a notable departure for director David Fincher, who is more accustomed to rattling our nerves with the likes of Seven, Fight Club and Panic Room. The script is by Eric Roth, who wrote both Forrest Gump and The Horse Whisperer, so perhaps that’s a clue as to where this would go.

Pitt and Blanchett do their best to give the movie a believable centre, but whether it can hold amid the whirling phantasmagoria is uncertain. Their encounters are curiously awkward, maybe expectedly so for such a strange love story, and the registers clash. In the absence of Fincher’s more usual toughness, it feels as though a weird kind of sentimentality (a push towards feelings we can’t quite get a purchase on) is filling the gap. Benjamin’s condition means, in terms of identifying with him as a character, that we feel pulled in different, incompatible directions. Time’s arrow, after all, cannot be reversed.

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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