'Every Thing Will Be Fine': Berlin Review

Every Thing Will Be Fine
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
A faltering, unconvincing story overshadows the valid dramatic premise and a noteworthy technical achievement

James Franco and Charlotte Gainsbourg enact Wim Wenders' intimate, inward-looking drama in 3D

Wim Wenders' fascination with 3D cinematography began with his acclaimed documentary Pina about dancer Pina Bausch, and continued in the multiple-director omnibus Cathedrals of Culture last year. Perhaps no one outside of James Cameron has intuited the potential of 3D as well as the German director, and it was high time to try out these technical advances in a piece of dramatic fiction. But unfortunately, the awkwardly titled Every Thing Will Be Fine seems more like a showcase for expressive camerawork pushing the limits of cinematography than anything else. Actors the caliber of James Franco and Charlotte Gainsbourg get the short end of the stick in this angst-ridden drama about a writer who is tormented by the accidental death of a child. There is dramatic tension here, but all things considered, this ranks as a puzzling failure.

The subject is grim enough to give many art house regulars pause, and Wenders' treatment does nothing to lighten the depressing side of Bjorn Olaf Johannessen's screenplay. On the contrary, the atmosphere hangs heavy as the characters try to cope with the central tragedy. Nor does it help that writer Tomas Eldan (played by Franco) reacts to his overwhelming sense of guilt by closing up like a clam. Though everyone tells him he is blameless, he obviously doesn't feel that way, and the story lumbers on through scene after self-destructive scene until he faces his demons and reaches glib, unmerited closure. Script cliches painting him as a moody alcohol and drug-addled writer prone to tear up the pages he has written in a fit of creative despair don't take him far either.

Tomas is so self-absorbed that it's hard to tell if he is meant to be taken as a negative character or just a deeply flawed one. On the surface, his reactions are the standard rational male responses to female demands that he settle down ("I'm not ready for all that," "You want kids and I don't", "I just want to write") or show some outward emotion, for example, after watching a woman nearly die at the fairgrounds. But put together, they add up to a tough guy to warm up to. Even factoring in his defensive, disarming smile, Franco's chiseled Greek face is as cold as a statue here.

The first accident occurs at the beginning of the film, while Tomas is driving home to have dinner with his girlfriend, Sara (Rachel McAdams), one snowy evening. A bit on edge from a ringing cell phone he refuses to answer, he doesn't see two boys barreling down the hill in front of him on a sled. The audience will also be feeling disoriented by falling 3D snowflakes and the amazing effect of looking through the windshield at deep layers of imagery. The whole scene is shot with heart-stopping, edge-of-seat precision. Braking on the icy road, Tomas is relieved to find little Christopher sitting a few feet in front of his car, shocked but unhurt. He walks him up the hill to his house, talking and joking, but when mother Kate (Charlotte Gainsbourg) sees them, she frantically asks where his brother Nicholas is.

The scars are deep, and the rest of the film traces his search for forgiveness so he can heal and move on. This is done in scenes that are deliberately unconnected, fading to black and jumping over years. The accident drives a wedge between Tomas and Sara, though they seem to have very little chemistry in the first place. He later forms a family with literary editor Ann (Marie-Josee Croze) and her bright little girl, Mina. Though Croze plays Ann as more mature and controlled than McAdams' spontaneous and emotive Sara, the female psychology seems off base in both cases.

It's hard to believe in these or Tomas's other cliche-ridden relationships. His unwillingness or inability to have children may have its roots in his sneering father (Patrick Bauchau). Dad is more than a bitter old man; he's downright nasty. His wife, son and prestigious job seem meaningless now that he's aging, and Tomas's patience with the old geezer is remarkable.

His one convincing relationship is with Kate, Christopher's eccentric mother. They meet a couple of times, sharing their grief as they look for reassurance that they are not guilty. The emotional realism of these delicate scenes makes them the most riveting in the film, sanctified by Gainsbourg's quiet, heartfelt performance that defies all banality.

The film has no tagline that would set the action in a particular place, and only the waist-deep snow and a road sign for "Saint-Philomene" suggest that we are in French-speaking Canada. (Late into the film, Tomas wins a literary prize in Toronto.) Adding to the uncertainty of the location is the strange, bookish English everyone speaks. The language used is very distancing and flattens out the characters, making them seem even more peripheral to the fancy camerawork around them, and raising the question of whether 3D is appropriate for such a closed-door drama after all.

It certainly holds the attention in a way much 3D work does not and never disappears into the background. Cinematographer Benoit Debie conveys many layers and many moods with his special lenses and moving camera. Ultimately the deep-focus background seems to become a kind of mental landscape belonging to the characters. Emmanuel Frechette's set design is rich in color and texture — and rich in general with light pouring through the floor-to-ceiling windows of expensive dream houses built on lakes and rivers. Alexandre Desplat's score, neatly blending the cosmic with thriller themes, affords beautiful company throughout.

Production companies: Neue Road Movies, Montauk Productions in association with Bac Films, Gota Film, Mer Film
Cast: James Franco, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Rachel McAdams, Marie-Josee Croze, Robert Naylor, Patrick Bauchau, Peter Stormare
Director: Wim Wenders
Screenwriter: Bjorn Olaf Johannessen, based on his novel
Producer: Gian-Piero Ringel
Executive producers: Jeremy Thomas, Hussain Amarshi, Vince Jolivette
Director of photography: Benoit Debie
Production designer: Emmanuel Frechette

Costume designer: Sophie Lefebvre
Editor: Toni Froschhammer
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Casting: Heidi Levitt, Leo Davis, Lissy Holm, Lucie Robitaille
Sales: HanWay Films
No rating, 118 minutes