Director: Paolo Barzman
Starring: Susan Sarandon, Max von Sydow, Gabriel Byrne, Christopher Plummer, Roy Dupuis
While the message of most books and films centering on the holocaust is “never forget,” I’ve seen two films this year which argue the necessity of forgetting and letting go. The first was Fugitive Pieces, the second is Emotional Arithmetic. While the latter isn’t quite as successful as the former, it does have moments of great power.
Melanie (Susan Sarrandon), Christopher (Gabriel Byrne) and Jakob (Max von Sydow) are three survivors of Drancy, reunited forty years later in Quebec, where Melanie lives with her husband (Christopher Plummer), son (Roy Dupuis) and grandson, Timmy (Dakota Goyo). Melanie and Christopher were only children when they were in the camp and were saved from being transferred to Auschwitz by Jakob, who bribed a guard to take their names off the list and put his own on. After Auschwitz, Jakob ended up in the Gulag, and was later committed to a mental institution where drugs and electro-shock took their toll on both his memory and his ability to write.
While Jakob is forgetting, Melanie and Christopher find themselves stuck in their memories. Christopher seems to have put his entire life on hold until he can be reunited with Melanie, while Melanie drifts in and out of sanity and is obsessed with recording the facts of history’s atrocities. While in Drancy, Jakob had given Melanie a book in which he had started recording the names of all the people who came through the camp, impressing upon her the importance of their bearing witness. Now, forty years later, her husband laments that everything that happens in the world happens to her and the house is full of filing cabinets which contain lists and names.
The scenes which take place at the farm in Quebec – which are rife with all kinds of tension – are intercut with flashback scenes which do little to enhance the drama of the film’s present. For one thing, the flashbacks don't provide much in the way of new information, tending to just re-enact things the characters in the present day have already described happening, and these scenes are filmed in a way that offers no real visual impression of what life was like inside the camp. For another thing, the actors playing young Melanie and Christopher aren’t really up to the burden of the material. I’m not going to harp on this because, after all, the two actors are just children, but the stilted nature of their scenes is especially noticeable when contrasted with the performance by young Goyo, who seems so natural and unaffected as Timmy.
What saves the movie are the scenes which take place in Quebec. Dupuis, Byrne, Plummer and von Sydow are all at the top of their game and Sarandon, in particular, renders an achingly beautiful performance. There is a moment when Melanie presents Jakob with the finished book, which he no longer remembers having given to her, when Sarandon is able to simultaneously convey both the obsessive and disillusioned woman and the hopeful child in constant conflict within Melanie. Scenes like that one, between assured, skilled performers tell us more than the flashbacks ever could.