Dementia serves as a cruel indulgence in Sally Potter’s latest introspective wallow, The Roads Not Taken, a short but thankfully sweeter film than her last.
Potter is, to put it mildly, a hit and miss director, though to just call her by that title is to dismiss the powerful, all-consuming role she plays in her films. In this one alone, she writes, co-edits and scores the film, besides directing. She plays one of the main parts too in The Tango Lesson. A film by Potter really is, soup to nuts, a film by Potter, and The Roads Not Taken is no exception. She brings most of her pictures in tightly – this is eighty minutes, her last film The Party a mere seventy-one. There is a welcome economy to Potter’s work, a brevity which other filmmakers would do well to import, but despite this a film by Potter often feels longer than the running time. Again, The Roads Not Taken, an intentionally fragmented, insular and personal work, is no exception.
Leo (a somber Javier Bardem) is a middle-aged man suffering from advanced dementia as he is visited by his loyal daughter Molly (Elle Fanning), and the film charts the course of their journey across one day, as Molly takes Leo for medical checkups and must cope with his physical and psychological deterioration in public and around professionals. Simultaneously, while trapped in the mental prison of his condition, Leo plays out several parallel versions of his past, including a life in rural Mexico with his ex-wife Dolores (Salma Hayek), and a visit to Greece, alone, where he becomes obsessed with following a group of young women, one of whom reminds him strongly of his daughter. A third parallel life, which would have seen Leo living with his male partner (played by Chris Rock) in New York, was filmed but cut from the picture entirely.
Potter’s film nonetheless interweaves these three journeys for Leo as he tries to contextualise his experience with great difficulty.
All of Potter’s films are personal to some degree, driven by her politics or commitment to feminism or indeed her love of dance and performance, but The Roads Not Taken cuts especially deep given her brother Nic succumbed to the disease in 2013.
There is likely some catharsis in how Potter expresses the trauma and disassociation of dementia through Leo, and Bardem particularly leans into the depiction as being, at once, profoundly traumatised in the moment and remaining utterly detached from reality. It is, in places, quite disturbing a portrayal, one Potter crafted heavily from personal experiences:
I was close to a very dear friend over a 20 year period who became unable to speak, and I was responsible for her care. I became her translator from her silence into speech when she was trying to communicate with people. And then my younger brother contracted young onset dementia, and also had a lot of communication difficulties. They both passed on in the same time of the year. It was following the intensity of those experiences and across a very long preoccupation with the nature of the mind that led me to start thinking about how I could use some of the things that I had learned. Bearing witness to these people that I had loved and turn it into a story that might be relevant and recognizable to others.
There is often a sense of narrative indulgence about Potter’s work. Little actually happens in The Roads Not Taken but, in this case, that is less of an issue. Given much of the film works as an internal psychological release from Leo, the rambling nature of the storytelling serves to enhance his fractured, somnolent state of mind, travelling as it does from reality to fantasy, imagination to stark realism, as he ponders strands of life, possibilities, that never came to fruition.
In this sense, Potter’s film is not a crushing and powerful examination of dementia akin to Wash Westmoreland’s Still Alice, which displayed the swift ravages of the cruel disease, but rather examines how Leo suffers from a loss of not just dignity but identity. Who do we become when grabbed and grappled by such trauma? Leo escaping into different lives serves to illuminate perhaps the only escape from the loss of self, retreating into alternate pathways in order to reconcile facets of one’s life considered regrets, unfinished or even unspoken. In Leo’s realities, a life with the right woman and a stronger relationship with his daughter frame Leo’s own psychological journeys.
The Roads Not Taken remains typically Potterian; melancholic, middle-class, existential, a touch pretentious, divested of anything in the way of traditional forward momentum, but it does contain a weight that some of her pictures lack. Solid performances, from Bardem especially, ground her picture as a serious, if emotionally enigmatic, examination of a devastating fragmentation of personality, humanity and self.
The Roads Not Taken is out in U.K. cinemas from Friday 11th September.
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