The Roads Not Taken
For a project packed with talent – writer-director Sally Potter, cinematographer Robbie Ryan, actors Javier Bardem, Salma Hayek and Elle Fanning – this achingly po-faced melodrama amounts to a catastrophic misfire. Potter’s clipped, elliptical cinematic style is partnered with an inane screenplay and, among other things, an ostentatiously swirling and demonstrative score. These foundations intend to depict a man facing up to his regrets while in the throes of a degenerative illness. What he retains is the unbridled freedom of the mind. The whole enterprise is conceptually flawed and dramatically misconceived.
Leo (Bardem, not good) is in the late stages of neurological deterioration. It’s glib to suggest that the viewer soon feels something similar, but his character requires too much uncritical investment. His oppressive monosyllabism and elemental use of language – “home”, “love”, and so on – are sources of accidental comedy. That his daughter Molly (Fanning, willing) cares for him unconditionally provides further absurdity. There’s no real conflict in their relationship when most of the plot suggests there should be. Hayek is the could-have-been love interest who must look variously wan and frustrated within Leo’s whimsical brain-tours.
The negative syntax of the title is indicative of the wider structural awkwardness. Ugly bouts of lingual tongue-foolery find their reflection in the multi-stranded narrative. The roads not taken together form an elaborate crisscross of storylines, a baffling and over-deliberated mesh. It’s down to an unforgiving Laura Linney cameo to give the abrupt exposition, a moment which undermines the carefully preserved ambiguities of the first act. Neither the covert world-building nor the brazen revelations are employed constructively or coherently. Leo’s inability to articulate himself is the shameless pivot upon which the thick coagulation of tales is explained to us.
It’s possible to argue that the cyclical visual repetitions and ponderous character development adequately ape Leo’s debilitated condition. It’s possible to recommend Yves-Marie Omnes’s frontloaded sound design, which positions the harsh metropolitan streets of Leo’s current reality against the tranquil waves of his alternative existence. It’s even possible to suggest that the film’s half-baked metatextual awareness could forgive its multiverse indulgences. These points are subsumed, however, by one galling sequence. Leo finds himself disorientated in New York, staggering underneath the arches. A good Samaritan notices the stumbling man’s state of undress and, in an inexplicable act of divine grace, begins to wash his feet. With that crude allusion, the film’s credibility is extinguished.
The Roads Not Taken is released nationwide on 1st May 2020.
Read more reviews from our Berlin Film Festival 2020 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Berlin Film Festival website here.
Watch the trailer for The Roads Not Taken here: