Emotional Arithmetic is Susan Sarandon’s third Canadian film. She was the flighty, free-spirited English-speaking model in Larry Kent’s little-seen The Apprentice in 1971, and the small-town girl from Moose Jaw who dreams of being a croupier in Monte Carlo in Louis Malle’s Oscar-nominated Atlantic City in 1980, the part that made her a star in Hollywood.
Based on the 1990 novel by the late Matt Cohen, Emotional Arithmetic stars the enduring Sarandon, who looks fabulous at 61, as a troubled Holocaust survivor. She is the emotional fulcrum for four very different men in her life, who are also haunted by the past in their own way. There’s her retired professor husband, Christopher Plummer, her former lover and fellow camp survivor, Gabriel Byrne, her saviour, Max von Sydow, and her grown son, Roy Dupuis. All have gathered at her idyllic family home somewhere in the Eastern Townships during a beautiful autumn.
I have not read the novel, so I can’t comment the film’s faithfulness to Cohen’s text and themes. What I can say is that despite its lush setting, and it is beautifully shot by Luc Montpellier (Away from Her), the film has a claustrophobic feel to it, with a lot of low-light interior set-ups, tight shots in the kitchen or barn, and long passages of dialogue. Director Paolo Barzman comes from television (Relic Hunter, Grand Star), and it shows in the film’s overall lack of cinematic flare. His direction is competent and sensitive, but pedestrian.
During the Second World War, Melanie, a Jew (Sarandon), and Christopher, improbably an Irish gentile (Byrne), survive a transit camp on the outskirts of Paris due the kindness of a stranger, Jakob, a Jewish writer and scholar (von Sydow). In the present, Jakob, who not only managed to survive Auschwitz but also the Gulag and Soviet psychiatric hospitals, comes to visit Melanie and brings with him Christopher. This sets off a chain of memories (shown in flashbacks shot in black and white) and present-day conversions and confrontations about the Holocaust and its effect on survivors. Surprise: they carry a lot of guilt.
As a piece of low-key melodrama, Emotional Arithmetic works effectively. It has a great cast,and Plummer is especially good as the older husband who has come to resent the guilt that Melanie carries. Like the Energizer Bunny, Plummer just keeps going and going and going. His first film was Nicolas Ray’s Wind across the Everglades in 1958, some 50 years ago. What doesn’t work is the undeniable fact that Sarandon is much too young to play the part of a Holocaust survivor who the film implies is 10 or 12 years old in 1943. She would have to be 78 or thereabouts today. It’s jarring and draws attention away from the central theme of loss and memory the film is trying to establish. It also doesn’t help that Barzman’s attempt at profundity includes too many meaningful, lingering shots of various characters gazing wordlessly toward the horizon or setting sun.
As long as there are Baby Boomers to carry their parents’ guilt, there will be Holocaust-themed films. Emotional Arithmetic, with its emotional twists and turns, is no more than standard arthouse fare, which adds little to the popular genre. It is made tolerable by Montpellier’s lovely cinematography and the impressive acting talent on display. Next one up is another Canadian film, Jeremy Podeswa’s Fugitive Pieces, set to be released in early May. Emotional Arithmetic was the closing film at TIFF 2007, and Fugitive Pieces was the opening film.