Moving Along

The Substance of Fire
Lagoon Cinema, starts Friday
Lagoon Cinema, starts Friday

EXPOSITION DRIVES ME nuts, because movies tend to go through way too much throat-clearing and finger-pointing to get their stories started. If the premise sounded good in the first place, this is especially frustrating because I'm already in my seat, twiddling my mental thumbs. Faced with a scene between married people who remind each other what anniversary is coming up, I'm thinking, Get on the damn horse and ride it already.

So it's refreshing to find two movies that take exposition as a challenge instead of a duty. Coincidentally, both are about family members who are not up to speed emotionally or psychologically, and who are grieving a death in idiosyncratic ways. One is the 4-year-old title character of Ponette (Victoire Thivisol), who's just learned that Mommy has died; the other is Isaac Geldhart (Ron Rifkin), an elderly Holocaust survivor and rapidly fraying publisher of luxurious history books, who is at the sad heart of Dan Sullivan's The Substance of Fire.

Based on Jon Robin Baitz's play, Substance follows not just the widowed Isaac but also his three distinct children, as they struggle to cope with his odd but endangered brilliance. The story begins as Isaac is approving ridiculous expenses for a limited run of a book on Nazi architecture; next he green-lights a four-volume history of Dr. Mengele's sick experiments on Jews. Each copy of this book will cost $200 just to make. Understandably, son Aaron (Tony Goldwyn), who's actively in the business, is concerned; with the firm headed for bankruptcy, he'd rather publish a hot new novel, coincidentally written by his lover. Daughter Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker) isn't a reader--she sings in silly pigtails on a Mr. Rogers-style show--but she's worrying about her father, too.

Caught in a middle of his own is the other son, Martin (Timothy Hutton). A ruminative professor of landscape architecture, he's also in remission from Hodgkin's disease--but there's the chance of a relapse, brought on by stress. Each time the movie approaches these characters, especially Isaac, the results are genuinely intriguing. Relationships and subplots arise only as needed, and for a good while it's not entirely clear which character will be the central one. Even after a showdown between Dad and the kids over who owns the business, Baitz's interest in witty dialogue alternates with the ever-sadder clarity of Isaac's mental deterioration. Thinking his Mengele book has been published, Isaac asks a bookstore clerk to search for it, and gets this reply: "Sorry. There's a lot of 'Genocide,' but no 'Science Of.'"

This mordant take on Holocaust themes supports but doesn't overwhelm the movie. And while it's fairly conventional and genteel in an American Playhouse sort of way, The Substance of Fire still lives by unpredictability. Some subplots, especially Martin's, are regrettably obvious, but the charismatic Rifkin's intensely focused performance is a reminder that a story can also be a question.

Ponette offers a very different kind of intensity. Already honored with both best-film and -acting honors at the Venice Film Festival, Jacques Doillon's tale of a girl figuring out how to grieve her dead mother is singleminded and uncompromising. Shot primarily at Ponette's height and about a foot away from her face, it observes her reception of conflicting advice and comfort. There is talk about God in Heaven, about why a casket needs a pillow, about flying mice, and about Jesus as a kind of receptionist for Ponette's messages. Ponette's agnostic father (Xavier Beauvois) is so distraught over his wife's death that he says unwise things about her to his innocent daughter. Other kids lay on equally unneeded grief.

At the center of all this, Ponette displays the distraction, gullibility, and curiosity of her age. She insists that she and Mommy talk every night, even though people both kind and cruel try to convince her that she doesn't. She agrees to undergo simple little "trials" to become a "Child of God" who can tell Him what to do--even though the one girl who claims this honor isn't very credible to begin with. (If nothing else, the movie seems to argue against unsupervised play, due to all the misinformation heaped on little Ponette.)

Doillon approached this mini-Bergman crisis drama by interviewing dozens of preschool kids. He transcribed their observations on many things, and used some of their thoughts as dialogue. His goal was to use innocence and confusion as the framework for Ponette's maturation, and, indeed, the hopscotching rhythms of preschoolers' chat make the story's progress charmingly intuitive.

The end product is spiritual without being religious--somewhat like Breaking the Waves--and it's so devoted to its primary plot that it doesn't even explain a few seemingly important details. This sort of devotion is just shy of an obsession, but it's also the hallmark of a truly focused project. When it comes to exposition, Doillon doesn't stumble through obvious introductions; he allows a viewer to discover the treasure and turmoil that have been lying within, all along.

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