Paradise (1991), an American remake of the French hit Le Grand Chemin (1987), is a deeply moving film, one that hovers between sentiment and sentimentality, but comes down, finally, on the side of the former. It’s a thin line, I admit, and it’s a judgment call. But that’s how I see it.
There are no car chases here, no explosions, in the credits of no catalogues of stunt people, puppeteers, model makers, fx crew — just routinely superb acting and great story-telling. Melanie Griffith I have great respect for as an actress, and Don Johnson demonstrates convincingly that he’s found life after Miami Vice’s Sonny Crockett. Perhaps the best job is the one Elijah Wood does as ten-year old Willard Young; and Thora Birch, as nine-year old Billie Pike, is also a joy to behold.
Above all this is a story about families and the kinds of tales they tell themselves and each other in order to make tolerable the intolerable, and what happens when the scales of illusion fall from the occluded mind’s eye. Here are children looking for fathers that don’t exist, and parents looking for a child who is no more; women looking for husbands, and men looking for wives; the present searching for a coming-to-terms with the past; the accepting of life as it is — often unfair and inexplicable — and the living of it in the flawed here and now; the exorcising of fears.
Every parent who ever lost a child, literally or metaphorically, every child who wonders about a missing parent, every human trying to make sense of a love gone bad or lost through no person’s fault, every lonely single desperate to connect at any cost — all of them will find something to cry about in this film.
The director, Mary Agnes Donoghue, has a honed directorial feel for just how deep to push our buttons without overdoing it, for what our capacity for pathos will bear before surfeiting, for just the critical exposure of those parts of ourselves that (like some of the characters) we might prefer not to peer at too narrowly. At times she makes us uncomfortable, at other times she tugs at our heart strings — and all the time I admire her ability to walk an emotional high wire with faultless balance.
I find the film something of a tour-de-force as sheer story-telling. The plot is tight, yet loosely looked at through a series of inter-related and parallel tales — young and old, married and unmarried, dead and alive. The cemetery — like the attic and the big wooden tower — is an important symbol in this film, and the little ‘joke’ about ghosts Billie tells Willard near the start is an emblem of the exorcizing of ghosts from the past. The dead are dead, but the living are living.
An intense scene in the attic with Ben and Lily, who had lost a small son a few years earlier, conjures up in my mind the image of the attic not as the traditional repository of honored family heirlooms but of a past that is dead yet too much present, and being kept alive by a kind of high-tech machinery of unassuagable guilt. And the ring composition of the Greyhound bus at the start (crossing a long bridge) and end appropriately conveys the circling theme of the age-old journey into self that finds polymorphous realization in the course of this film.
The romantic (in the literary-historical sense) notion that children have insights not vouchsafed adults is made much of in this film, in particular with young Billie. She is the first, as it were, to see the falsity of adult tales meant to protect — or deceive — and it is as though once she has dared to face her fear about paternity and stare an unhappy truth in the face, others draw from her courage and confront their own debilitating myths.
The final scenes are quite riveting. The rain storm washes down like the pluvial embodiment of an Aristotelian catharsis, and the closed door (“Don’t force it,” Ben says gently – in an upcoming piece [Paraklausithyron] I discuss this symbolism in detail) where the hands of husband and wife finally touch holds the promise of at last creating an opening into the loveless house of their marriage. The final pan over the great riverine estuary debouching on the Atlantic indicates to my mind that the flow has returned.