As of this week, a major retrospective of the films of Wim Wenders is wrapping up at The Cinematheque. Career overviews, especially the ones that play in Vancouver, tend to be laudatory rather than critical, but there is a narrative in the series’ omissions — far from a complete collection of Wenders’ films, there isn’t a single fiction film more recent than Until the End of the World, a five-hour epic from 1991. Since then, Wenders hasn’t slowed down (nine features to go with five documentaries), but audiences and critics have mostly stayed away.
Wenders’ preoccupations haven’t changed during that time, and are present in his newest film, Every Thing Will Be Fine: a focus on artists (writers, painters, film directors, photographers, musicians, overlapping with the concerts and performances that show up in his documentaries), and the necessary solitudes that envelop them, as a byproduct of their choice of profession and where they live. Wenders’ films tend to circle around an idea, drifting into inaction, curiously inattentive to actors, yet always needing them to ground the existentialism or abstract dialogue that, sometimes, elevates his works into the realm of something approaching a modernist daydream.
Here, James Franco plays Tomas Eldan, a novelist living in a region of Quebec where everyone, for some reason, speaks English (a prologue takes place in a northern cabin-dotted ice-fishing spot, and the rest takes place in suburban Montreal, with asides in a coastal country house). We never see his writing, which might be for the best, but he seems addicted to the idea of the solitary male artist, if not in how he talks (in one meta-joke, he says he doesn’t care for Faulkner, or most classic novelists), then in how he acts: despite two relationships over the course of the film (one ends because of his selfish refusal to empathize or compromise), there isn’t a single scene of genuine affection in the film. Rachel McAdams, as Sara, stares out a window, concern etched into her forehead, trying to reach Tomas on the phone; later she sits at the end of his hospital bed after a suicide attempt, his only friend. He falls asleep. Marie-Josée Croze, as Ann, smiles warmly as Tomas acts as a willing punching bag for her young daughter, sits beside him at a concert, and briefly challenges him over his refusal to show any kind of vulnerability.
Artists might technically be the best-equipped to depict artists, knowing intimately both the failings and beauty of the role, but that doesn’t stop most movies about writers from being completely misguided garbage. Every Thing Will Be Fine, based on a script by Bjørn Olaf Johannessen, side-steps some of the problems of the genre, while retaining others, mostly because it is, in the end, a middlebrow movie about an artistic-type slowly coming to terms with responsibility. Despite working in Canada, and with a script that opens with a child, a car accident, and white snow covering all, Wenders thankfully doesn’t go anywhere near the territory of Atom Egoyan — there is no mystery to be slowly revealed and metaphorically cycled through. Instead, what unfolds is like a flipped version of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole: aftermath seen from the side of someone who can call it a mistake to move on from, rather than a moment that will stick in memory, be grieved over.
This is, then, a movie that recedes from conflict and incident and dwells in oddly specific, but understated detail (through a timeline that skips across nearly a decade). Tomas’s father (Patrick Bauchau) appears in only two scenes: in the first, he complains about his late wife, Tomas flinching in the corner in the way children who have long given up trying to change their parents do. If someone’s looking for a Freudian explanation for Tomas’s fear of commitment, there it is, in a short, almost moving scene. Or, in a likely unintentional comment on the landscape of Canadian literature, Tomas wins the Giller Prize, in a scene that takes place off-screen, but can move about the city and meet at a coffee shop without ever worrying about anyone recognizing his face.
For Wenders, the interest in this film is also technical: it is a low-key drama shot in 3D. Following a documentary that captured the work of dance artist Pina Bausch, Wenders seems to be testing to what extent the format will make an otherwise conventional scenario more vivid, if the stretch of the image out from the screen will bring an audience closer to its characters. Working with stereographer Josephine Derobe (who also worked on Pina) and cinematographer Benoît Debie, (also Gasper Noé’s director of photographer for Love 3D), Wenders clearly knows the most effective uses of the format: dust motes and snowflakes in the air, light through windows, snow banks and light poles in the foreground for perspective, and, in an idiosyncratic move, dolly zooms that turn actors into static figures surrounded by a dream in a diorama. Does it change much? Unless a viewer is searching for these choices, not really. The effect of Every Thing Will Be Fine’s visual approach, complemented by a colour palette of warm blues, greens, and orange-browns, is, like the rest of the film, superior to his Wenders’ other recent work, while remaining sentimental in a way that leaves only the faintest impression.