According to directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel in their DVD commentary, they begin and end their film, Bee Season, at a national spelling bee final to “make it seem like a fable.” From here, as the scene cuts from young Eliza (Flora Cross) on stage to Eliza in a car, the camera pulls far, far out, to show a giant latter “A” being lowered by helicopter into a portside sign for the City of Oakland. And so begins the attention to letters as such, and also letters as emblems, the ways they combine and fall apart to make and deconstruct concepts, to forge communication, deception, and expectation.
This mystical power is embodied by Eliza in the film, and as Siegel puts it, newcomer “Flora is kind of an amazing find for us,” in large part because she brings a “simplicity of watching” to the character, whose careful observations of her parents—Kabbalist professor Saul (Richard Gere) and delicate survivor Miriam (Juliette Binoche)—leads her to a stunning display of selflessness by film’s end. (As screenwriter Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal puts it in a second commentary track, with producer Albert Berger, “She’s a girl who saves her own life.”)
Eliza’s family, also including her brother Aaron (Max Minghella), is well-meaning and intellectual. Their dysfunctions ground an exploration of the relationship between language and experience, or, put another way, the distressing consequences of literalizing desire. That the film can’t get at this problem without also literalizing the characters’ yearnings and imaginings tangles up theme and plot in ways that are sometimes more distracting than poignant or shrewd.
“Like any other American family, Gyllenhaal says, only half-joking, the Naumanns have a “Gothic unconscious underpinning to them.” She notes that in her frequent writing about families, she tends to see them as “dangerous, and with not much self-examination, really dangerous to their children” (she also wrote Running on Empty and Losing Isaiah). (The DVD includes as well a couple of five-minute documentaries, “The Essence of Bee Season” “The Making of Bee Season,” which make similar observations about links between form and theme.)
Eliza’s gift for spelling is at once thrilling and unnerving. At first, she hides it from her parents, asking her older brother to take to her a weekend bee, where she is brilliant, surprising Aaron and leading him to rethink his relationship with her, and eventually with his family. For this sixth grader, words are mystical, magical, and wholly material. Her understanding of words is both grander and more mundane than any bee prizes; as she discovers the ways words mediate and translate the unfathomable and deeply spiritual nature of daily life and family relations, young Eliza also comes to forgive those who don’t see, who can’t understand matter how much they might desire it.
Eliza first shows her gift during a classroom contest. She closes her eyes and appears to feel or even see the words in concrete forms. Throughout the film, you’re invited to see with her—letters appear in air, rush around and reform so that they’re in proper order, an “origami” bird helps her to spell the word, or plants sprout from her shoulders as she spells “cotyledon.” As Siegel describes “the idea of letting Eliza’s imagination surround her,” it means to “make Eliza’s connection to the world, Eliza’s kind of rootedness in the world, feel strong.”) Her serial wins at these contests means she is traveling beyond local venues to regional, state, and eventually, a national bee.
Eliza is coached and supported in her victories by her suddenly attentive father. Here, Gyllenhaal suggests, he becomes destructive in his inability to see his effects on her, not only in pressuring her, but also in doting on her, using her to conduct his own search for God. After Eliza wins her first trophy, Aaron drives her home as the scene cuts to Saul performing for rapt students in his classroom, explaining, “God is everything, a perfect, luminous essence. But even God wants more, to experience, to give. So God creates a vessel, a container that can receive this gift of God’s pure light… This vessel can’t contain the magnitude of this light, and it shatters.”
This speech foreshadows the shattering of Saul’s family—his wife, his relationships with his children, his self-understanding. Saul convinces himself that Allie’s special affinity for letters and words means she might become a mystic, “someone who can really connect to God,” as he puts it (and as he has himself tried to be). “Permute the word ‘earth,’” he instructs. “Feel [the letters] as if there’s an additional spirit within you, but go slowly, as the path is dangerous and must be traveled with caution.” The child gazes at the page before her, the letters dancing as she “feels” what her father tells her and the film making explicit what she sees. The tone turns slightly skewed: the literal representation of dad’s dream of “connecting” seems almost comedic, in a slightly scary way.
Saul’s obsessive interest in Eliza (or really, in his own success, by proxy) leads him to spend less time with Aaron, with whom he used to play string duets. Feeling neglected, Aaron starts looking elsewhere for “meaning,” outside temple and certainly, outside his family. Aaron’s shift is the film’s least convincing. As he begins to think about meditating, he meets cute with Hari Krishna devotee Chali (Kate Bosworth). She sees Aaron’s sadness and the how-to religious book in his lap. “Something’s missing,” she notes, “From your life.” Before you know it, Aaron’s sneaking out of the house or lying about his whereabouts so he can pray at the house where Chali and the rest of her orange-robed colleagues drink tea and burn incense. Much like the literal letters dancing around Eliza on screen, the fact that Aaron’s drawn to this particular exploration by sunshiney Bosworth makes the plot seem less sincere than arch.
Most tragic, least fathomable, and emphatically most literal is the search conducted by Eliza’s mom long ago traumatized by her parents’ deaths in a car accident. She converted to Judaism when she married, and as she too feels neglected by Saul, she falls increasingly into a form of literalization that has, apparently, plagued her for years. Her visions (nightmares, memories?) reveal the fragmented way by which she sees the world, what the camera shows through the kaleidoscope she gives Eliza. Slowly, she’s coming undone, unwatched by her husband and frightening her children.
Come to find out that Miriam’s been listening to Saul’s class lectures very carefully, in particular his speech about gathering together exploded “shards” of light being the most important task for a believer. In her case, the attempt to make literal what Saul calls a metaphor is devastating, and she is increasingly unable to make him see what she sees. Instead, she seeks out “shards” in material form, light-catching objects she steals from neighboring houses, collecting them into a storage unit where the light seems almost “captured,” or at least refracted in brilliant, complex, and overwhelmingly physical ways. The space emulates the connection Saul describes, but also makes the lack of connection seem almost unbearably acute. Inspired by a Cornelia Parker installation, McGehee says, “This is probably the most daunting set that we kind of had to approach in thinking about how this film would look and how we would build it.”
That Saul has no concept of how to speak with her, much less share with her, only underlines the point that while everyone in his family seeks to please him, and he can’t see any of them clearly. “Now that she’s in an institution,” Gyllenhaal says of a last scene where Saul visits Miriam in a hospital, “She’s freer than she’s ever been.” This in partial response to Berger’s reading of the scene, that Saul conceives of Miriam as “mad” here. For Gyllenhaal, such judgment depends on the viewer: “I feel enormous empathy for her… Madness is a line that’s defined by what? What it means is being more and more in touch with your unconscious.”
Eliza’s valiant efforts to accommodate her father’s needs are rendered in tight close-ups of her thoughtful face, as well as CGI-ed mystical signs. Her generosity, the film suggests, is pure, because she is so young and open. Though he means to teach Eliza, Saul learns his own lesson, less of his own accord than by his family’s disparate, apparently implacable energies.
Suffused with loss and longing, Bee Season is often graceful and moving. This makes its lapses into inelegance almost more intriguing, as they seem so unlike the brief close-ups of Eliza’s shallow breaths and closed eyes. Alternately lyrical and frustrating, the movie also relies on contrivances that leave you feeling a step ahead of the narrative, not an ideal position when contemplating spiritual “truths.”