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Passion of Mind

Director: Alain Berliner
Cast: Demi Moore, Stellan Skarsgard, William Fichtner, Sinead Cusack, Peter Riegert, Joss Ackland

(Paramount Classics; 1999)

City Mouse, Country Mouse

Sometimes it’s hard to say when a film goes wrong. It may be a brief image that looks out of place or bit of dialogue that sounds stilted and silly enough to make an audience laugh out loud—when the film isn’t a comedy. In Passion of Mind, the point of no return comes early and hard. Specifically, it comes in the first minute, as the camera slowly approaches a clay bust that sort of resembles star Demi Moore. Her voice over speaks scratchily (like she always does) but also softly, like she’s dreaming, or better, imagines she’s being serious and intimate: “This is me or her, we’re the same. That’s what we look like.” She’s concerned, you see, Moore’s character Marie, because when she dreams at night, she becomes Marty, and vice versa. Both experiences are so real to her that she doesn’t want to give up either. And besides, what’s so great about reality anyway? Or smart movies, for that matter?


Right. This is yet another movie about a woman with two selves, or two lives, or two dimensions, like Julia and Julia (Kathleen Turner got there ahead of the pack, way back in 1987), the anemic Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Sliding Doors or this year’s Me Myself I, starring the previously irrepressible Rachel Griffith. The dilemma facing these characters invariably involves bringing home the bacon and frying it up in a pan, that is, choices they wish they’d made or had, that is, between career and motherhood. Given that this formula is fairly set, one might wonder what Ms. Demi, who has taken on her share of silly and dicey, controversial and/or preposterous parts, might have had on her mind when she made the choice to appear in yet another rendition of it. I suppose someone could make the case that the movie—directed, sadly, by Alain Berliner, the Belgian filmmaker who managed an insightful and delightful critique of gender roles in Ma vie en rose a couple of years ago—offers the intrepid Moore a chance to “stretch,” in the way that actors like to say they like to do.


But for the most part, Moore looks and acts the same as Marie and Marty. Marie is a widowed mother of two daughters, a book reviewer living in Provence, where she can root around in the dirt and wear overalls and smudges on her nose. At bedtime, she locks herself in her room, so that no one can wake her unexpectedly (like, for a fire, or an emergency concerning one of her young daughters) and tear her from her other life before she’s ready. A lingering shot of Marie’s keys on the nightstand… and voila!, the film cuts to Marty’s ablutions morning in Manhattan. Where Marie’s life is recognizably cluttered but simple—perhaps grounded is the better term—everything in Marty’s existence is expensive and tasteful, precise and reeking of privilege: she’s a fancy schmancy literary agent who takes her coffee and cell phone to her rooftop that allows her (and the sweeping camera) to survey the Big Apple’s spectacular skyline, and she dresses in ferociously haute couture, all layered black suits and ruffled necks and expensive brooches. Dynamic, successful, and not a little brittle, Marty’s been—you guessed it—avoiding romance until she meets a compassionate accountant, Aaron (William Fichtner). At this point, the film lurches into some higher gear, by which I mean, it begins to spin its wheels furiously on its way to nowhere special.


While Marty confides in Aaron (who calls his secretary and cancels his Day when Marty, all a twitter after an emotional night as Marie, pleads, suddenly needy and girlish, “Stay with me today?!”), Marie has Jessie (Sinead Cusack), a boozy, chain-smoking woman who seems to have nothing better to do than sit around and listen to Marie describe her other life. As Marie talks, she’s planting things or cleaning up after her kids. Marty has to be taught to feel anything sensual: Aaron takes her on a ferry ride (woo-hoo!). The contrast is clear enough in all kinds of rigidly conventional and ideological terms: Marie is the earth mama and Marty (as her name trumpets) is the urban, mannish, and lonely executive. Yet, each incarnation has ostensibly attractive points (otherwise, why would they be dreaming each other up?) and each has annoying hang-ups and twitches (and, truth be told, as Marty, Moore has moments where she calls up the perky corporate demonness she played in Disclosure, that excellently trashy flick in which her dizzied-up cyberself attacked Michael Douglas in a green-gridded virtual reality: you can file that under appealing or annoying, whichever you prefer).


Jessie’s not the only one who’s in on Marty and Marie’s secret. They know about each other (the time frame is not entirely clear, but it seems they’ve been at this for a couple of years), and increasingly, they’re blabbing about their other lives to anyone who will listen. Two who are paid to do so are their respective shrinks, Dr. Peters (Peter Riegert) in the city and Dr. Langer (Joss Ackland) in the country (he speaks with a Freudish accent and an apparently genuine concern for his troubled and often tearful patient, all of which suggests, right off, that he’s somewhat less than real). Marie’s in love with a writer whose book she once tore up in a review, the rumpled and passionate William (Stellan Skarsgard). He courts her with a candlelit dinner (shot in the castle that once belonged to the Marquis de Sade: make of that what you will). Before he becomes aggressive in his pursuit, William is perfectly patient and devoted to Marie’s kids, and lets her lock herself up in the bedroom after they make love while on vacation. How perfect is that?, you may be thinking, as William snarfles off to the sofa in the next room. Or, you might just as likely be thinking, what’s wrong with this picture? The significantly named Dr. Peters thinks there’s plenty wrong, and he tells Marty straight up: she should not be talking about her second life (her “condition,” as Peters puts it) to anyone, especially Aaron, because he might think she’s psycho and she’d lose her last chance for love. Oops, too late!


And so the deal becomes this: which existence will be more tolerant and forgiving of Marty’s and Marie’s selfishness and doubleness and wild imagination(s)? The belief among Marty/Marie’s cohort is that the more generous one is the unreal one, because life is hard (and two are really hard). Such difficulty and complexity are not always a sign that you are “mad as a hatter” (Marty’s phrase, or perhaps it’s Marie’s, I’ve lost track). Rather, these are the sorts of quandaries that shape most daily lives.


Passion of Mind‘s melodramatic approach to Marty/Marie’s search for her “identity” seems born of the era which has produced it, the era where public confessional stands in for actually working through a problem, where appearing on Oprah or Jenny Jones is a sign that you are seeking a “normal” life (the definition of “normal” remains elusive, but assumed). In fact, the horribly titled and unevenly written (by Ron Bass, responsible for Rain Man and My Best Friend’s Wedding) Passion of Mind is rife with questions worth asking, like, for instance, How do you know what’s real? How do you know who you are? How do you shape reality, by thinking or imagining it? Do multiple realities exist simultaneously, just waiting to be uncovered by warpspeed and other on-the-horizon technologies? But the film never quite gets to the radical departure from normalizing narrative that it promises. Instead, it reduces potential answers to these questions to a kind of convenient psychobabble, having to do with Marie/Marty’s family history, and in effect, hystericizes her in a very conventional and unimaginative way: exploring her own passions, it seems, can only make a woman unhappy and confused. Better for her to capitulate to expectations, and not aspire to too much.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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