2005Director: Scott McGehee, David Siegel
Cast: Richard Gere, Juliette Binoche, Flora Cross
t best, Bee Season is a jumbled mess of good ideas that never fully find a fitting framework; at worst, an example of religious treacle that assumes it possesses a deeper meaning than its poor screenplay could possibly fathom. Not that the film doesn’t contain successful moments, but it approaches its theme in such broad, clumsy strokes that it undermines the more subtle and brilliant elements.
On the surface, Bee Season tells the story of a child prodigy named Eliza Naumann (Flora Cross) blessed with the gift of remarkable spelling, but beneath that lies the tale of how the previously concealed turmoil of her family begins to bubble to the surface in light of her newfound talent—not the most engaging premise for a film, be it arthouse or mainstream. In the right hands, though, even the driest screenplay could be transformed into something exciting or thoughtful. With the present direction, however, the film comes off as a cumbersome and heavy-handed tale of isolation and religious redemption.
The catalyst for this familial breakdown occurs when young Eliza wins her school’s spelling bee competition. Initially, no one in the family notices her success, but when news of her triumph reaches her self-absorbed father Saul (Richard Gere), he focuses all his energy onto her. At first, it appears as if he were exhibiting a natural response to his child’s accomplishment, but as the film progresses we notice that his attention may be more than a bit misplaced.
What drives his focus on Eliza’s ability is his own obsession with Kabbalah and the way in which her ability to see words (literally) may be linked in some way to Jewish Mysticism. He believes that with her powers she can “reach the earpiece of God,” and in essence, he uses her to achieve his own spiritual transcendence.
And so, with that we arrive at these ridiculous spelling bees. Rather than exemplifying the natural ennui that comes with such events, directors McGehee and Siegel (who worked together on 2001’s The Deep End) opt to jazz things up a bit. They make gaudy cuts at pointless moments and do their best to unnaturally intensify the situation, including inserting unnecessary special effects to add a sense of magic to the mundane. For instance, when Eliza spells the word “dandelion,” she closes her eyes and sees dandelions floating through the air, spelling out the word for her.
The film wants you to believe that her spirituality allows her this gift of perfect spelling, but all I thought was that her magic abilities were just a complicated form of cheating. I could imagine the spelling bee judge’s panel pulling her aside and having a stern lecture with her: “I’m sorry Eliza, your tests came back and we found trace amounts of Jewish Mysticism in your blood that we believe may unnaturally aid your success at spelling; we’re afraid you’ll have to be excused from the competition.” Hey, it’s not like the other kids there didn’t have to go through hell to get where they are, but they were the subjects of a very different film called Spellbound.
Of course, Saul’s focus on his daughter begins to test the limits of his relationship with both his wife Miriam (Juliette Binoche) and son Aaron (Max Minghella). Aaron thinks his father is a pompous windbag (he is), and identifies the subtle manipulation in Saul’s relationship with Flora.
But Saul remains oblivious to the crumbling foundations of his family and when he’s not expostulating at length about his daughter’s talent or what he plans to cook for dinner that evening, he sings “Two Tickets to Paradise” to his wife while trying to seduce her. Who couldn’t blame Miriam when she finally starts to lose her sanity? She stays out all night; he says nothing. Is she having an affair? The film attempts to conceal her objective to increase the tension, but when her whereabouts are finally revealed, the result is so questionable that one wishes it were as clichéd as an affair. One thing is for sure; she somehow managed to procure an isolated warehouse unbeknownst to her husband who apparently doesn’t pay much attention to their monthly credit card statements, which, given Saul’s personality, doesn’t surprise me that much.
Their son, meanwhile struggles with his own religious identity. He meets a beautiful girl at a park while reading a book called Are You a Hindu?. She talks to him in that vague way that all strangers talk to people in movies and invites him to her house. Wouldn’t you know it? She’s a Hare Krishna, thus introducing yet another contrived conflict into this already crowded mess.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s mom Naomi Gyllenhaal wrote the screenplay and I have to wonder whether the blame falls squarely on her or if the original novel upon which this was based was flawed to begin with. Certainly having two directors signed onto the project didn’t help at all as the film possesses no discernable personal style and seems like a hodgepodge of elements lifted from countless other films.
Yet, much has been said of Flora Cross’s performance. Some critics have cited her as the force that carries this film. My impression is that child actors always garner praise when they act distant and detached—more adult than child-like. Personally, I felt as if she appeared more bored than anything else. If that constitutes talented acting, so be it. Maybe it isn’t so much a demonstration of her skills as an actress as much as a revelation that she may just be bright enough to recognize the tedium of the screenplay within which she’s trapped.