Passion of Mind (review)

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Parallel Lives

The paths we choose to take in our lives invariably cut off the other paths we didn’t take. Women feel this more than men, perhaps: If a gal spends her 20s and 30s building a career, the window of opportunity for motherhood disappears, but if she spends those years raising children, she’ll have missed the chance for career. Men can have both career and children, but it’s tough for a woman to do both fabulously well at the same time.

Or is it? Marie (Demi Moore: G.I. Jane) seems to have the best of both worlds. A recently widowed single mom of two young girls, she lives an idyllic life in the French countryside — she’s American, but her husband was French — paying the bills by writing book reviews for the New York Times and passing the glorious days digging in the garden with her daughters or having a smoke and a whiskey with her friend, Jessie (Sinéad Cusack). When she goes to sleep at night, she lives an alternate life in New York City, as Marty (also Moore), a high-powered literary agent, the kind of stylish, glamorous, exciting woman who has men and the world at her feet. And when Marty sleeps, she dreams of being Marie, in France. Each thinks the other is nothing but a fantasy, and neither is sure that she herself isn’t. But each is reluctant to let the other go.
Though it does not land overtly in the supernatural realm, Passion of Mind certainly seems to be part of the trend in psychological dramas, like The Sixth Sense and the upcoming What Lies Beneath — call it X-Files lite. The worlds of Marie and Marty have a fantastical unreality about them — the France and the New York of their parallel lives have the clean beauty of illusion. Their homes are exquisitely decorated; their wardrobes are note-perfect for their respective lives. Either world could be the fantasy… or perhaps they both are.

Languid and slow-moving, the film shifts back and forth between Marie’s and Marty’s lives, as each meets and gradually falls in love with, naturally, dreamily perfect, perfectly understanding men: Marie with William (Stellan Skarsgård: Ronin, Good Will Hunting), a writer, and Marty with Aaron (William Fichtner: Go, Contact). Both women have issues with relationships and commitment, so there will be lots of heart-rending angst for Marty and Marie to contend with.

And therein lies the major problem with Passion of Mind. Demi Moore is not a passionate actor — she’s cold, even. It’s impossible to really sympathize with her character(s) because she doesn’t show us any feeling. She has nice chemistry with the delightful young actresses who play her daughters — though I suspect that has more to do with the natural exuberance of children than it does with Moore — but she clicks with neither Skarsgård or Fichtner, and can’t ever really make us understand how torn between two lives, two worlds, two men that Marie/Marty must be.

My initial reaction to the film was that I wanted it to be more about the choices that women make — career or motherhood — what they lose and gain from those choices, and the satisfactions and heartbreaks that result. I was ready to blame screenwriter Ronald Bass (Entrapment, Rain Man) for this deficit, but as I think back, I not sure now that this is entirely his fault. A warmer, more emotional actress in the lead role may have made up for any shortcomings in the script.

Bass is to blame, though, for the ultimate failure of the film: the resolution of Marie/Marty’s situation. With an intriguing setup that could have turned in any number of directions, from suspenseful to romantic, Passion of Mind ends up painting itself into a corner and then cheating to get out of it with a manipulative, melodramatic revelation. Any possibility of serious exploration of women’s emotional lives disappears with its cliché of a wrap-up.

But that’s what so often happens when men make movies about women — in addition to Bass behind the scenes, Belgian director Alain Berliner makes his English-language debut here. Instead of any real understanding of what makes women tick, you get cheap, Hallmark-card sentimentality.

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