Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Director: Raphaël Nadjari
Screenplay: Raphaël Nadjari , Geoffroy Grison.
Runtime: 98 minutes.
Cast: Ori Pfeffer, Moni Moshonov, Michaela Eshet, Bethany Gorenberg.
Plot: Estranged son Shaul decides on a whim to return to Haifa, and to visit a father he has not seen in many years. Possibly in the grip of depression, Shaul is supprised to find his father, Simon, taking yoga classes and engaging in other new age practices. The reason is Simon’s new girlfriend, Bati, who owns a crystal healing store and moderates his temper. The arrival of Shaul’s eight-year-old daughter, Michal, and her affection for Bati and Simon further complicates matters for alienated Shaul.
Review: ‘So we’re ordinary’ Shaul (Ori Pfeffer) comments to new friend, potential lover Orly (Maya Kenig) at the close of this puzzling film, as they agree to go and get ice cream together with perhaps the hope of something more. A Strange Course of Events, by writer-director Raphaël Nadjari, is itself fairly ordinary and consequently not too interesting beyond some slight character studies. Defying its title, the film follows medical worker Shaul as he temporarily abandons his life and visits his estranged father Simon (Moni Moshonov) in Haifa. This would be unexceptional except for his father’s new lover, Bati (Michaela Eshet), who runs a new age feel-goodery store at their local shopping centre. Shaul is miffed, potentially hoping to spend private time with his father and suffering from that special ire singletons feel for happy couples. And Bati and Simon seem very happy, even able to resolve their small arguments with a minimum of damage – an intelligent hint from Nadjari at the strength of the couple.
A series of strange events do occur, but only strange within the frame of reference of the ordinary – Shaul slips and falls on a jog, experiencing supposedly psychosomatic pain; a new statue collapses at an unveiling; Bati entertains Simon and Shaul’s daughter Michal (Bethany Gorenberg) with a pseudo-séance and the power of crystals. The real focus here are the standard, depressive problems of Shaul, who does not seem to have recovered from the dissolution of his relationship with Michal’s mother, despite the fact it was several years ago. Both the script and Nadjari’s direction are smart about how they portray these common issues, as we get to see an actual low-key argument between the two when Michal needs to be picked up. Similarly, Shaul’s passive anger is deftly conveyed on screen – leading to a humorous pairing of scenes consisting of him dealing with an impatient patient, and then a later scene where he becomes the agitated patient himself. The film suggests that Shaul’s problems may be solved through a chance meeting with fellow patient Orly; indeed, the film closes with this, leaning on that interpretation heavily.
The problem is that this conceit and structure is worn out, with the lovers meeting and the cut to black suggesting what could be. It was most famously articulated as a post-modern doctrine in John Fowles’ The Magus, the lovers at the crossroads, where a forlorn male protagonist travels all the way to a Greek island to win back the lover he so carelessly threw away. Fowles writes:
The smallest hope, a bare continuing to exist, is enough for the anti-hero's future; leave him, says our age, leave him where mankind is in its history, at a crossroads, in a dilemma, with all to lose and only more of the same to win; let him survive, but give him no direction, no reward; because we too are waiting, in our solitary rooms where the telephone never rings, waiting for this girl, this truth, this crystal of humanity, this reality lost through imagination, to return; and to say she returns is a lie. But the maze has no centre. An ending is no more than a point in sequence, a snip of the cutting shears. Benedick kissed Beatrice at last; but ten years later? And Elsinore, that following spring? So ten more days. But what happened in the following years shall be silence; another mystery.
I think this is an apt description for the sub-genre of depressive romance that A Strange Course of Events aims for; where our lovers finally meet, but only for a day. It has become a common, uninteresting trope. Additionally, Nadjari’s choices in recording Shaul’s depression do not help elevate the level of significance the film aspires to. The colour palate of the film is drab, aiming for that cinéma verite style in a fictional context which directors now use as a shorthand for present and real. The indoor scenes have a Joe Swanberg drabness to them – reminding me of the recently viewed Happy Christmas, but in Nadjari’s case using that subdued grain to a much lesser impact.
Nadjari’s two portraits of romance, concave on one side (Shaul, Orly) and convex on the other (Simon, Bati), musters little interest. Shaul’s relationship to his daughter, their mother, and the complexities of managing these relationships and the desires of the respective parties hold real interest. Unfortunately, A Strange Course of Events spends little time with these themes – Michal’s arrival comes late in the film, and her mother’s entrance almost at its conclusion. Not much time is left to tease out these threads, and this doesn’t seem to be Nadjari’s primary focus. A shame, because I became genuinely taken with Michal’s immediate affection for Bati and the manner in which the older couple seemed to become immediately animated on having a child enter their world. It formed a nice counterpoint to Shaul’s own leaden presence.
Ultimately, there is a substantial amount of walking into the distance within A Strange Course of Events, leaving the narrative open and unresolved for the audience. A technique that works in the truly great films; but in lesser hands leaves the audience ambivalent and uninvested in the plight of a film’s characters. In a wry exchange, The Magus’ protagonist finds himself in the position of every dramatic director possessed of what they think is an emotionally resonant idea:
‘Why should I struggle through hundreds of pages of fabrication to reach half a dozen very little truths?'
'Fun!' He [the Greek] pounced on the word. 'Words are for truth. For facts. Not fiction.’
His misfortune was to run into a wry old Greek, willing to play the devil’s advocate. I take his point not to be dismissing fiction wholesale, but rather the invented padding inbetween. Similarly with Nadjari’s A Strange Course of Events; the truths needed to be a little less little, the padding between them a little more full of truth.
Rating: Two and a half stars.