When was the last time you watched a film again immediately? Last night, I watched Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There and found it absorbing and somewhat perplexing, but my recollection was that it dragged on too long and took a left turn two-thirds through with Richard Gere that damaged the overall arc of the story.
But it nagged at me all day Sunday. So I slid the DVD in and watched it again. Maybe it was the tequila Saturday night, but the second time around, the film revealed more to me than before. And I think I began to understand its undeniable brilliance.
The inventive premise in this Bob Dylan biopic is that Dylan, always a chameleon, could not be played by one actor. So Haynes employed six, including, most famously, Cate Blanchett, playing the 1966-era Dylan at the height of his fame. None of the characters are actually named “Bob Dylan.” (As has been noted often, even Bob Dylan wasn’t named that. Robert Zimmerman took the name from Dylan Thomas.)
I’m not a Dylanologist–I have no more than a passing familiarity with his classic albums from the 60s, although I’m a big believer in his later work, including “Blood on the Tracks” and “Time Out of Mind.” But even so, I could recognize how Haynes was attempting a high-wire act of fusing the ambiguity and inscrutable nature of Dylan’s lyrics with his persona.
Blanchett received (and earned) all of the headlines for her gender-bending role, although I never lost track that I was observing an actor make choices as opposed to inhabiting a character. But this time around I found myself drawn to the arc between Heath Ledger and Charlotte Gainsbourg, which really gives the movie its heart. Ledger plays an actor who became famous playing a Bob Dylan-type in a breakout performance and meets Gainsbourg’s character, a painter, in Greenwich Village. They fall in love, marry, have children.
Despite competing for narrative space with five other threads, their drama walks the full distance between passion, love, estrangement and divorce without ever feeling rushed. Part of that is the use of Dylan’s music as shorthand. It fills in the emotional gaps where exposition might otherwise be required. From “I Want You” from the couple’s early days to “A Simple Twist of Fate” when Gainsbourg is alone, raising their children, Haynes has built a testament to the power music holds in our emotional histories. For many, music is memory. (I couldn’t help but flash back a couple of times to Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky, which tried to make the same point in a much more convoluted and contrived way.)
Much of I’m Not There is about separation and alienation, about the distance between the artist and his fans, or the artist and the people he loves. It’s also about projection, how we force our idols (and our lovers) to be archetypes instead of the flawed human beings they are and how we cannot forgive them for that. The Dylan characters continually face allegations that they have “changed,” that they have lost touch with their roots. How many times in tumbling relationships do principals indict their partners in the same way? And what happens when being true to yourself means not staying behind?
The result is an arresting film that packs a surprising emotional punch, particularly if you have lived some version of that live (or those lives) yourself. I may have to watch it again.
Here is a terrific review from Film Comment, that gets to the heart of the film in a much more eloquent way than I could ever attempt.