In the very first moment of Beginners we see Oliver (Ewan McGregor) emptying a vial of pills into the toilet. A few moments after we cut to an exterior scene of Oliver in a hardhat and several other men in hardhats shooting off fireworks. There is something rather wonderful about these dueling images. The pills going down, the fireworks going up. Lows and highs, sad face and happy face, “some days you got the blues and other days you don’t.”
I’m sure Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall had about 350,000 hours of footage to wade through for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Kevin Tent had to make sure The Descendants repeatedly found that tricky balance between comedy and pathos and the proper pace of The Artist was dictated by Annie-Sophie Bion and Michel Hazanavicius in the editing bay and Thelma Schoonmaker had, like, 52 storylines to sync up in Hugo and Christopher Tellefsen had to find and make drama out of baseball statistics and people standing around and sitting around talking about baseball statistics in Moneyball and while these are all noble accomplishments, well, hey! Can’t we get any love Olivier Bugge Coutté, film editor of Beginners?! (Note: He did win Best Editing from the San Diego Film Critics Society. Apparently people a little further down I-5 know what’s up.)
It is a film about Oliver, a graphic designer who despite his obvious resemblance to Ewan McGregor is resigned to a life of melancholia and infinite sadness (yes, pretty people can be sad too and if you don’t think so then, uh, I’m pretty sure you didn’t on turn on CNN yesterday), possibly because he is the son of a father who stayed in the closet for 44 years in the hopes that his wife could change him even though she couldn’t and which left the both of them resigned to a marriage of melancholia and infinite sadness.
It is about his father passing away from cancer but as the film starts Oliver reminds us that his mother also passed away from cancer (double freaking whammy) and during her battle ate French toast for every meal, watched the “Teletubbies” every day while “skipping back and forth through time in her head.” That last line is the key one and that’s because it is summarizes the film’s entire structure. Beginners spends its 90 or so minutes skipping back and forth through time in Oliver’s head because, hey, when forced with such trauma isn’t that what we all do?
“And that’s what memory is like, especially grief memory. You’re just walloped by images and memories and things that you were just talking about with this person. They fill you, and in a lot of ways you’re more in the memory than you are in the present. … For the movie, I wanted it to be not like flashbacks. I wanted it to be more substantial, like to have its own life.” – Writer/Director Mike Mills
To have its own life is right on because for as non-linear as Beginners is, it never fails to feel, well, linear. We see young Oliver’s mother direct him to his room and advise him to shut the door and scream. “It’s called catharsis,” she says. The next scene is present day Oliver and his pal (Kai Lennox) indulging in a bit of ne’er do well graffiti and/or vandalism which, of course, functions as a form of catharsis. Near the end of the film when Oliver’s relationship with Melanie Laurent’s Anna has hit the inevitable cold hard rocks the film returns to brief images from earlier in the film of his father and mother robotically kissing goodbye to underscore the point. It’s a purposeful structure that for the duration of its run time juxtaposes rich, idyllic fantasy with the awfulness of real life.
“Our fortune allowed us to feel the sadness they couldn’t. And happines.” – Oliver
Beginners is a film about people with sadness who strive to find happiness while simultaneously coming to grips with the fact that you can’t be happy without the sad and you can’t be sad without that happy, that life is an immeasurable but necessary mixture of the two. Sometimes you flush pills away, sometimes you get to shoot off fireworks. Some days you got the blues and other days you don’t.
The writing of Mills sets this up and the acting of the uniformly fantastic ensemble conveys it and the music highlights it and the cinematography colors it with the lush glimmer that the memory can add to just about everything and the editing of Olivier Bugge Coutté is what brings it all home.
HOW DID YOU FEEL ABOUT THE EDITING IN BEGINNERS? WHO DO YOU THINK DESERVES THE OSCAR IN THAT CATEGORY?