Some twist endings should be left to twist slowly in the wind. Still, The Life Before Her Eyes' punch line—and it was fresh 125 years ago, anyway—isn't completely unworkable. A poetic director, preferably female, could have made something out of this story. Despite Sofia Coppola's limitations, this is material that would have suited her perfectly. As it stands, director Vadim Perelman (House of Fog and Sand) is out of his element.
Diana (Uma Thurman) lives the luxury-car commercial life, inhabiting a fine old two-story house surrounded by what appears to be at least a half-acre of perfect flowers. She drives her seemingly perfect little daughter to Catholic school. In the opposite direction, her husband, a perfectly bearded philosophy professor, pedals off to college on his bicycle. But Diana's perfect day is shadowed by the anniversary of the high school shooting that changed her life. Although she has chosen to lock out the memories, they intrude.
In unusually shapeless flashbacks, Diana's past life unfolds. When she was 17 (Evan Rachel Wood plays her then), Diana's best friend forever was a religious girl named Maureen (Eva Amurri of Saved! ). One day, a rejected young man gets an automatic rifle and goes on a rampage. Maureen and Diana are cornered in a flooded school bathroom. The killer draws on the girls, asking them to pick which of them should live.
Cut to the present. The seeming perfection of Diana's middle-aged life shows its cracks: her daughter keeps running away from her teachers and hiding; her husband appears to be having an affair with a student.
The otherwise very literal director Perelman demonstrates the same vagueness about class conflict and the price of things that he showed in House of Sand and Fog. And once again, he is doing a movie where knowledge of these matters is essential. Diana claims she came from the wrong side of the tracks, a small-town girl with a rep for being a slut. But the small town is a perfect Connecticut village, and Diana's particular badness is manifested in an abortion. It's a bloody, botched trauma (2008 movie abortions always are). And as in other current films, her decision is a cause for later grieving, in this case over one of those fields of crosses which the anti-choice crowd put up as memorials to the unborn.
Perelman hasn't much of a hand for symbolism. Symbols better seen out of the corner of our eye are slammed right in the middle of a frame. The events in both of Diana's lives seem unmoored in time. It is all explained, if not satisfactorily, and yet it still doesn't add up. In this film, the flowers are arranged more carefully than the flow of flashbacks and flash-forwards.
Amurri is an underrated actress, even if the film's bead on her character is wobbly. Wood's fine-boned, luminous face almost draws us into a story without a center. Michigan poet Laura Kasischke's novel has an idea that could be transformed into a dreamy, haunting movie.
But even if the theme were handled better, it would still be a movie to be swallowed, not understood. If picked apart, The Life Before Her Eyes is a self-pitying story that tries to match the pain of middle-aged malaise with the pain of a Columbine-style catastrophe. It is one thing when teenage dreams die a natural death by age. It is another when they are ended by murder.
'The Life Before Her Eyes' opens Friday, May 16, at Rialto Cinemas Lakeside, 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. 707.525.4840.
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