A palindrome is a word or phrase that is spelled exactly the same, whether backwards or forwards. Todd Solondz uses the idea as a basis for his latest film by the same name. Palindromes is a story so steeped in obscure imagery, disturbing pedophilia and perverse dark humor that its unique plays on the concept of a palindrome are hard to enjoy. It’s a garish attempt at artistic filmmaking that treads too heavily on topics that will hit close to home for many. The result is a shameless mess where envelope pushing is regularly confused for creativity. Forgive me if this review sounds more like a college essay than a movie review, but Palindromes is the kind of art-house crap that is too absurd to write about as a film…and that’s coming from someone who usually likes art-house crap.
Aviva is a young girl who wants to love and be loved. It’s an understandable desire given that she is parented by the most unloving, selfish, two-faced, people on the planet. In an effort to correct her situation, the very confused child sets out to have a baby by convincing a boy her age to impregnate her. When she succeeds, Aviva’s parents are aghast, forcing her into having an abortion. The procedure goes awry and the doctors have to perform a hysterectomy on Aviva, a fact the parents choose to withhold from her. Not to be deterred from her now futile mission, she runs away from home on a quest to find someone else she thinks will love her and get her pregnant.
On her journey Aviva encounters all types of personalities in all sorts of circumstances. Almost every single person she comes across seems to have the best of intentions but eventually their true nature is revealed creating one of the most perversely dark perspectives on humanity and existence imaginable. The characters are so strong and the situations so controversial that you can’t help but be moved by Aviva’s story. The only problem is that the film aims for more of an artsy-fartsy emotional manipulation instead of a geuine human response, a sad abuse of the attention the audience lends to the film.
Whatever Solondz is attempting to achieve with Palindromes, he uses some rather unique, if not obscure techniques to pull it off. The movie desperately wants to be unique and original but the final result is something like a Memento wannabe on acid. The character of Aviva is played by several actors, beginning with a very young black girl and moving onward through others of various ages, races and genders. All of them portray the same character and everyone they interact with sees the same little girl so the effect is purely for the audience’s sake. The actor and actresses who play Aviva, Jennifer Jason Leigh in particular, are exceptionally convincing in the role, no small feat for some of the younger ones who all have to deal with complex, disturbing scenes.
Plot points and the order of actors who play Aviva are palindromes of sorts reversing somewhere mid-movie, but the purpose is completely ambiguous. It’s the kind of eccentric and generic creativity that is open to wild interpretation and no doubt inspires joygasms in pseudo-intellectuals everywhere. That’s fine for them, but the social commentaries Solondz uses to achieve the effect cancel out any benefit the cleverness offers for those of us who live in the real world.
Most disturbing about Solondz’ film is the way he manipulates the audience’s feelings about important social issues like parenting, abortion, adoption, pedophilia, murder and religion. All are sacrificed on the director’s altar of bizarre dark humor, resulting in the type of hilarity that might be aimed at a deranged, heartless or stoned audience member. The pedophilia is particularly disquieting, matching the kind of creepiness achieved by Nicole Kidman in Birth.
It’s true you can’t help but be emotionally impacted by Palindromes, but that’s merely a side effect of the movie’s pointless flavor of envelope pushing. Despite the creative cinematography and the talent of an exceptional cast, the movie boils down to a being pseudo-intellectual wolf in art-house sheep’s clothing. I can imagine all kinds of interesting interpretations being derived, but people do that with Star Trek science too. It doesn’t make it brilliant, just unusual.
As a little known movie with limited theatrical release, there doesn’t seem to be much demand for Palindromes on DVD. There was certainly no interest on the part of the moviemaker or the distributor to add any extra material to the package. The disc is as simple as they come, offering only the original theatrical trailer as a bonus.
I can’t really say I’m too disappointed. I wanted to get the hundred minutes I wasted on the movie back, not indulge anymore time on extras. The one thing I might have been interested to hear is a commentary track by Todd Solondz. I would love to hear the mind behind this cinematic debacle explain his thought processes and his interpretations of the characters and interactions, if indeed he has any. I’m not convinced it isn’t all haphazard artistry run amuck with a few well placed philosophical diatribes to pluck the heart strings.
There’s also definitely room to talk about the movie’s unique soundtrack. The main theme is haunting and, though used repetitively to the point of being annoying, it would be fun to hear a little bit from the composer/performer. The remainder of the songs are also uniquely sardonic and the folks behind their composition might have had a thing to two to add as well.
With several actresses playing the same character, it might also have been intriguing to hear each discuss their perspective on Aviva and what they felt they brought to the role. On the other hand, no, I take that back. I don’t want to hear a thirteen year old actress describe what it was like to simulate sex with a balding, middle aged man.
All around it’s a mixed blessing to have so little bonus material. I suppose for interest’s sake, one could watch the movie as a palindrome by restarting it backwards from the end of the credits. Somehow I don’t think that would make it any more appealing.