the secret life of words
(IFC First Take)
The Spanish writerdirector Isabel Coixet has been making films forsome twenty years, but she is only belatedly becoming known in theUnited States. The Secret Life of Words is my first Coixet film,and it had something of the same effect as Climates, the recentfilm by the Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. In both cases, thework is so finely made that as I watched, I kept regretting mylateness in coming to this artist.
Like Ceylan--like many a fine director--Coixet has made her filmless as a drama than as the traversal of a state of mind, a mood.The story is just sufficient to keep the film mobile. What happenswithin the protagonist--the state in which we find her and thechanges that do or don't occur--is the substance of the film. It isnotable, too, that for a work that needed delicate reciprocity,Coixet brought together a team of international colleagues whononetheless give the film a harmony that has nothing to do withtheir origins. Mixed crews are not rare in films, especially bigones, but this is not a symphony, it is a chamber work. Several ofthe producers--among them Pedro Almodovar--are Spanish; Coixet(Catalan by birth) wrote the English-language screenplay apparentlywithout assistance; the leading actress, Sarah Polley, is Canadianand plays with a slight foreign accent; the leading man, TimRobbins, is a familiar American; the cinematographer, Jean-ClaudeLarrieu, and the art director, Pierre-Francois Limbosch, areFrench.
Begin with the last two, because we can imagine Coixet beginningwith them. The theme of the film is silence, theprison-and-paradise of silence within a young woman who has herreasons for it. Coixet and Larrieu have designed a lighting schemethat makes the world true enough yet remote, and Limbosch hascreated interiors that are like slices of solid color, with sparefurniture-- all like elements of a mechanism. Thus, as in so manygood films, everything we see is part of what the film is about.
Polley plays Hanna, a young woman working in a large noisy factoryin (as we later learn) Denmark. As the workers file in, each takesa pair of earmuffs from a rack, except Hanna. She is deaf--butalmost by choice. Her hearing aid, when she wants it to, brings herthe world. She has, as again we learn later, her reasons for notwanting to hear. She simply progresses through her life as iffollowing procedures in a manual. In fact, her boss calls her in tocomplain that in four years she has never been late, never missed aday. He virtually forces her to take a vacation.
We see her in her antiseptic apartment, packing her bag with some ofher collection of many soap bars and little else. We follow her to(what is probably) Northern Ireland, where, through the film's onehelpful coincidence, she learns that a nurse is needed on an oilrig out at sea. She is a trained nurse. She volunteers.
So now this self-isolated Hanna is on an isolated man-made islandfar out in the Atlantic, tending a patient who was temporarilyblinded in an accident-- which is, for a time, a parallel to herdeafness. The rig is commanded by a taciturn elderly man who likesto be left alone. It is as if Coixet has winnowed out of theteeming complexities of life some threads of quiet that are alwayspresent in the tangle and here are drawn close for our wonder.
The patient, Josef (played by Robbins), though sometimes in pain andalways in the dark, begins what he thinks is a playful dialoguewith his nurse. But it takes some days before she can even respondto his teasings. In time, they grow confident with each other. Hetells her of a childhood experience with his father that scarredhim figuratively for life. She tells him of a more literalscarring, more horrible. She had been a student in Dubrovnik and hadgone through experiences in the Balkan wars that not only destroyedher hearing and left her body decked with cicatrices, but made hercontent to move through life numbly. Eventually the Josef-Hannastory ends on shore as we might want it to do, but Coixet adds abrief postlude to take the predictable out of it.
More could be told--the one black member of the oil rig crew whoalso is usually alone because he is black; the two crew members whoare heterosexual but embrace because they are isolated there atsea--but these are enough of the facts that Coixet has selected tosupport her theme. She makes us recognize that, though of coursenot everyone in the world is a Hanna, very many of us carry asilence within us that we treat as a burden and a treasure. Hanna'ssilence was forced on her; yet she is still somewhat reluctant togive it up.
Polley has made a reputation as an actress with the ability toconvey thought. I add that she has another valued asset in anactor: she knows how to listen. Robbins fills a screen nicely andkeeps us interested in what he says and feels. Julie Christie, thedarling of Darling in 1965 and now hardly recognizable, isintelligent as a Danish guidance counselor. Coixet's directing isgenerally minimal: she does only what is needed. This includes hertraveling shots around the oil rig in fair weather and foul, andher long shots of it as an outpost in the middle of nowhere.
In contrast, a film based on bustle. The Argentinean writer-directorDaniel Burman specializes in Jewish life in Buenos Aires, treatedso affectionately that we feel we already know these people and areresuming their acquaintance. These people bustle. Burman's previousfilm Lost Embrace was about busy shopkeepers in a kind of mall, anda long-lost father's return is simply part of the hum. Bustle, too,encloses Burman's latest, Family Law, which is about a father andson who are lawyers. The father is a very busy minor lawyer; theson teaches law and gets involved with an attractive exerciseinstructor who is a student. Complications arise from both tracksas the two men keep moving along.
Burman is particularly good at the tiny details that becomerecognition points in daily patterns. Every morning the fatherstops at a cafe for a latte and two croissants, and we come toexpect it as if they were for us. Every day the son passes thedirectory in the lobby of their office building, sees that theirname--Perelman--is missing its "r," and (until the end) accepts it.So do we. These are only two of the fixtures in the lives of twomen in one more city on the face of the earth. Chattering along inits dailiness, the film rolls on until, like its predecessor, itfinishes pleasantly--bustle and all.