Emotional Arithmetic | Arts & Culture | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Emotional Arithmetic

Paolo Barzman's Emotional Arithmetic deals with how we all carry around our past experiences

Filmmaker Paolo Barzman had questions of memory---particularly what to do with or about horrific memories---on his mind for awhile before Matt Cohen's novel Emotional Arithmetic found its way to him.

"There is a big debate," he says over the phone, "around the world but in Europe a lot, and in France, about what we call le droit a l'oubli---the right to forget---versus the obligation of memory. It's obvious that you can't go on in life carrying all the museum of horrors but at the same time you do have to remember them. And I thought the book was a good springboard to investigate those issues."Emotional Arithmetic, the film directed by Barzman and opening locally this week, is about Melanie (Susan Sarandon), a Drancy, France, internment camp survivor, who after discovering that her fellow survivor, the elderly Jakob (Max von Sydow), is alive, invites him to come and live with her and her family in Quebec. Jakob brings with him Christopher, a boy of Melanie's age while at the camp and the beneficiary of her first stirrings of love as a girl. For the now-adult Christopher (Gabriel Byrne), the feeling was mutual and their still-simmering attraction is not lost on them or on Melanie's husband Benjamin (Christopher Plummer). Exquisite shots of Quebec's Eastern Townships in autumn juxtapose scenes of the characters grappling with how their past is affecting their present.Readers of the original novel will find some things missing---like long diversions in the book of melodrama between Melanie and her history-professor husband---in favour of heightening the feeling of immediacy in the film. The story takes place over the course of a day or so where Melanie and her family prep a dinner for their new arrivals."When I read the book," Barzman says, "I realized, 'Oh my god!' The best way to do the film is to use the table at dinner as a stage and have everything revolve around the day leading to that dinner."Melanie is the embodiment in the film of Barzman's question of memory. She devotes her life to cataloguing the victims of other atrocities while teetering on a perpetual edge of emotional breakdown. But Emotional Arithmetic is an ensemble piece about the price painful memories exact on one's self and those around you. This open form is one of the highlights for Barzman in his finished film."I think the balance between each character is good," he says. "There is a justice to every character. The character of Roy Dupuis---playing Sarandon's son---does not talk much, but he is still really powerful."When I think about the film I see all these moments, all these faces, all these eyes. It is like one multi-faced being."Emotional Arithmetic's assembled cast is a powerhouse with Plummer, Byrne and Von Sydow, as well as Sarandon and Dupuis all playing to their strengths. In the film, the inhabitants of Melanie's house, as well as her guests, sense something is off-kilter because of the resurgence of memories. Each actor expresses these emotions in ways familiar to audiences: Christopher Plummer is arrogant, Gabriel Byrne is hesitant, Max Von Sydow is wary and Susan Sarandon is determined. A sense that all the characters are unsure of where they fit into each others' lives is apparent.Confusion about one's place in another's emotional and historical landscapes is a prominent element of the movie that should stay with viewers even after Emotional Arithmetic is over. The film's theme of historical scars intact over generations is also personal to Barzman."For me, when I talk about memories, I am that generation that came after the war. And being Jewish and in France, I only heard about these things like the holocaust. I did not live them but everybody expected you to know but no one told you about them. It's like the character of Roy Dupuis---you are supposed to know but no one tells you; there is this kind of silence around it."Emotional Arithmetic dramatizes that silence and the problems inherent therein.

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