THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON: Ode to Life

I’ve gone back to David Fincher’s THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON more than any other film of the past year. And I’ll admit, in waiting for it to be released in DVD or Blu-ray, and reading the complaints of dullness from the detractors on the film, I wondered whether the film was going to stand up. But yes, it has. The more I’ve gone back to it, the more I’ve been enthralled by the film’s gradual emotional build-up: Fincher’s attention on the way things begin and develop, the short stories that come and go in the narrative, and in life, until it all starts to end. It is a film of great romance that fights with dreadful thoughts, with melancholies on the prospect of death and a poignancy when remembering our lives, one that leaves more than a lasting impression.

There is a pointlessness that has been claimed; that it is about nothing. While BENJAMIN BUTTON actually has themes on people’s individual stories against universal histories of societies, and the different meanings of their events for the individual, the film’s main point actually lies elusively inside that criticism of pointlessness: it is about the mere existence of living. Fincher makes us aware of something strange and beautiful, an intangible sensation that cannot be fully defined but only felt. The more I’ve seen the film, the more I’ve realized that Fincher’s visual language keeps us focused on the rhythm of life: the visual rhythms of sensations with the changes of the people both internally and externally, the findings of feelings as they advance in life, of people positioned as figures in a landscape full of roads and oceans that always seem endless and waiting to be discovered. Then there is the tempo, which sometimes is in sync with the rhythm of time, moving slowly and unalterably, leaving the characters to quite literally savor each moment; and in others instances, is swift and fast-paced with the overlay of one image into another, overwhelming the people as they realize life’s short duration when enjoyed.

The film begins on the discoveries of love from Benjamin (Brad Pitt) in the earlier part of his life: the love of a mother, the love of friends and the love of a lover(s). These are sometimes interrupted by the appearance of death, but still, the discoveries of love triumph the prospect of eventual death with the care of Queenie (Taraji P. Hanson), the friendship with Captain Mike (Jarred Harris), the romance with Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton) and the love narrative with Daisy (Cate Blanchett). It becomes a romantic adventure, with struggles and obstacles, but amorous nonetheless. But then it becomes a painful road. The father dies, friends die, and later the (adoptive) mother, and then the narratives of love are unsustainable as Benjamin knows he has to depart from Daisy; everything starts to end naturally, and they’re aware of it. Where most films go to high-note ends of happiness but leave with the journey unfinished, BENJAMIN BUTTON ends on a complete, disappointing but somehow gratified, passage.

The final sex scene between Benjamin and Daisy is not a passionate, romantic moment. It is a final goodbye to the end of their narrative together before their end individually. The scene is an odd mixture of sad thoughts and satisfied feelings, with time starting to run out. And where the last sex scenes between them transitioned into infinite landscapes of the sea, this last one transitions onto the darkness. Fincher brings us face to face with the prospect of the finish, and the end of our current time and space, challenging our emotions with the terrifying possibilities and the feeling of fulfilled pasts.

That last act – from Benjamin’s and Daisy’s high-points together in their romance and then their deaths, so natural but complicated by the varieties of emotions, with the narrative starting to crumble but then remembering the good times of living in Benjamin’s narrations – is the most emotional section of cinema that I’ve had in a while, working only when experiencing what came before in the film, otherwise feeling as nothing at all. Fincher captures something incredible in that: the pains of living, with the melancholia of the end that is about to come, but the easiness of death, with the thankfulness of what came before.

BENJAMIN BUTTON gave me a profound astonishment, greater than Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT, Martin McDonough’s IN BRUGES, Sam Mendes’ REVOLUTIONARY ROAD or Gus Van Sant’s MILK. All of those I consider to be great films from last year, but only Fincher’s film challenged me to these levels, losing nothing when revisited again. It served fundamental points about us, outlooks that extent far more than ideologies, but on who we are and our existence in time. And it has been in time in which I’ve come to see the film as the masterpiece from 2008, as I wonder around the images, as the characters in their endless territories.

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