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In 'Gone Girl,' David Fincher Embraces his Nasty Misanthropy

20th Century Fox

Here are two films about murder and marriage—do they go together like a horse and carriage? Our odd culture is alive for the moment with thoughts of new marital rights, but less aware how the main institution is going to hell. At the screening I attended, when David Fincher’s Gone Girl at last concluded, there were drained viewers chuckling ruefully over how glad they were to have seen the film before tying the knot. And you realized that that language foretold murder.

But people are drawn together. At the start of Mathieu Amalric’s The Blue Room, a man and a woman are lovers in a hotel room in rural France, the afternoon sunlight slanting on their bodies. Their precious nakedness cannot be discreet; it is too urgent to be evaded. A drop of blood falls on the bedclothes, pretty but startling: she has bitten him at the corner of his mouth. It’s a playful gesture, but he wonders about this fierceness, and about her taunting question: “Will your wife notice?”

In shuttered half-light, her legs fold over, letting us realize we have missed a glimpse of her secret parts. A fly settles beside her moist navel. She asks the man if they might be lovers forever, if she were free of her husband. He mutters something polite. He admits later that at times like that you hardly know what you’re saying. Before he can offer a fuller answer, he sees her husband approaching across the sunny courtyard outside the hotel. So he scrams, and we are left to consider whether she is a casual adulteress or a woman possessed by dangerous passion.

Could this lead to murder? Is that why the man is telling the story to the police? In Gone Girl, a married couple have moved from Manhattan to Missouri. There’s something wrong, something uneasy, and no life in the pairing of two unpleasant people. Then on the fifth anniversary of their marriage she disappears, and the police wonder whether he had something to do with it. Whereas he seems relieved and acts stupid. 

So these are thrillers, taken from cunning novels, the one full of wistful tenderness, and the other not. Gone Girl is not just a stepping stone in Fincher’s absorption in misanthropy, but a willful plunging off its cliff. Its players seem attractive at first, but Fincher despises charm and exults in unreliability. So the investigation in Gone Girl is a way of unpacking lies. Whereas, in The Blue Room, the film’s inquiry is never quite settled or able to forget that afternoon. It has two deaths, murder charges, and a legal decision. But what’s haunting in the film is leaving us unclear about the artful arrangement of its sharp fragments. The answer seemed obvious. And yet. . . Similarly, in Gone Girl, we conclude by knowing what happened, but we are left asking whether we are meant to believe it, or should the film find the courage to become a savage comedy (in the way of To Die For)? In both films, the directors are fond of mystery. But The Blue Room is attached to the unknowable excitement of being alive, while Gone Girl regards bodies as meat for the slab. Amalric likes sex and lets his story breathe; Fincher doesn’t have any patience with it and sucks out the air.

These are both entertaining pictures (for about 75 minutes), and that deserves attention with Gone Girl. For this film might have been a thriller based on character and a dark situation, made and acted with controlled suspense—this could be box office, as well as a stealthy analysis of marital unease. Isn’t this exactly the kind of movie we’re crying out for, with a major studio backing a daring adventure and being rewarded with eager audiences? The central character is Ben Affleck in his first large project since Argo. It’s true, he is neither simple nor likeable, but Affleck is inclined that way, and grudging over his own good looks. The woman in the picture, in a role foreseen for Reese Witherspoon (she is still a producer on the picture), turns out to be the English actress Rosamund Pike, who has not had a leading role in a big picture before. I’m sure Witherspoon would have been interesting in the part, now that she has dropped her girly pink aura. Pike is beautiful, bold-faced, and very frightening. I won’t spoil the plot of the film—suffice it to say that Pike’s ambiguity is important in the revelations that emerge. It’s at the heart of things that she and Affleck never quite feel natural or comfortable together.

The Blue Room is from a novel by Georges Simenon, published in 1955, adapted and directed by Amalric, who also plays the man in the story. You will recognize his sharp, wary face: he was the man in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It is less than a heroic face (he was a rascal in Spielberg’s Munich), and this affair is not quite normal in the movie way. Amalric is nervous, a little furtive and selfish perhaps, whereas his lover, Stephanie Cléau, is a tranquil beauty, serene in her sensuality, rather amused by him, half-aware that he may not be worthy of her. And she is taller than he is. That is not by chance: their first kiss, in wooded countryside, is one where her ravishing of him makes him reach up to her mouth. Everything about them is signaled in that shot, including the first notion that he is a fall guy.

There’s a lot in The Blue Room: an affair, some deaths, a trial, and an abiding uncertainty over exactly what happened. It could be the story of a mad woman and a feeble man. Or is it some subtler trap? I wouldn’t answer that if I could, but the ultimate triumph in what Amalric has done is to show us all the different forces that can be at work in an affair.

Gone Girl is the bigger film (145 minutes and far too drawn out, so that innate nastiness turns acidic), and with Fincher and Affleck attached, it had a shot at prizes long before it secured the opening night spot at the New York Film Festival. It comes from a best-selling novel by Gillian Flynn, and it makes an absorbing mystery for an hour, albeit one that settles most of its questions. As is often the case in American mystery films, the first half wondering is more compelling than the resolution—the rationale of large moneyed entertainments is: Why make a film to send the audience away confused? That is a disappointing principle. Film is a rich enough medium to handle doubt, and many of the best mystery films have been brave enough to retain uncertainty: The murder in Laura is solved, but can we credit that Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney are going to be happy ever after? In Antonioni’s The Passenger, are we sure what really happened to the Jack Nicholson character, and was Maria Schneider part of the intrigue or just a bystander? In David Fincher’s own Zodiac, can you be sure who was the killer, or how it happened?

Fincher is one of our most accomplished directors, but surely the one with the least faith in people or their warmth. His narrative authority and his command of suspense do not treat human beings kindly. Se7en, his most complete and implacable film, is mercilessly tidy in its endgame. The Social Network is a theorem on mistrust and betrayal. The ingenious Panic Room never manages to be more than a desperate exercise. The Fight Club is an audacious excursion in noir attitudes. But Fincher has been pushing at his own limits: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was surprisingly humane, and it established an abrupt Asperger’s affection between the characters played by Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig. Zodiac was a persistent reverie on the pearl of paranoia and legend that can surround the grit of crime. And now Gone Girl is another skilled handling of malice—until it topples into the absurd and the hateful. 

Fincher is fifty-two, and one longs to see him reaching out for more than cruelty. Yet, somehow character and intelligence have not emerged. You may know a film is Fincher from the snap of his film-making and its remorseless, depressive view of human situations, but there is no sense of these criminal melodramas amounting to a portrait of the world as a whole. Gone Girl promises to be an unnerving portrait of marriage as ruin, but then it opts for madness and implausibility.

Can he find himself and keep working within the mainstream? I’m not sure, and I remain uncertain as to whether he is simply a glittering craftsman in compelling but sometimes self-satisfied pessimism. On the other hand, The Blue Room is a picture I have been drawn back to several times, in an attempt to grasp its core. Amalric has more faith in people than Fincher—he likes the Cléau character just because she may be so extreme. And he has less interest in tidiness, which may be as fatal a mission for American films as the pursuit of happiness is for the nation.