Director Paolo Barzman’s sophomore feature “Emotional Arithmetic,” which closed this year’s Toronto Film Festival, is less a straight matter of addition or subtraction than it is a complex algebra equation, with multiple variables that all have a bearing on the sum. It is also, much like the film that opened Toronto this year, Jeremy Podeswa’s “Fugitive Pieces,” another visually lush, dramatically obvious story of Holocaust survivors still wrestling with the ghosts of their past, several decades on from the end of WWII. Generally solid performances and Barzman’s sensitive handling help to elevate the pic above the realm of the familiar and could result in okay arthouse biz among auds not yet exhausted by the subject matter.
Adapted by Jefferson Lewis from the novel by the late Matt Cohen, “Arithmetic” unfolds primarily against the scenic countryside of Quebec’s Eastern Townships region, where the American-born Melanie (Susan Sarandon) lives on a small farm with her history-professor husband David (Christopher Plummer) and their grown son Benjamin (Roy Dupuis). Despite the serenity of this bucolic setting, however, something seems off-kilter right from the start. Perhaps it’s the way everybody keeps asking Melanie if she’s remembered to “take her pill.” Or it could be Barzman’s penchant for filming the characters staring meaningfully at the horizon, across rolling hillsides and quiet lakes.
David, we learn, is recovering from a recent heart attack and has turned somewhat bitter in the face of old age. Melanie, meanwhile, is a survivor of the Drancy “transit camp” on the outskirts of Paris, where Jews were detained by the Vichy government before being shipped off to Auschwitz — memories that intrude on the present in the form of staccato, black-and-white flashbacks. The unlikelihood of an American citizen ending up in a French detention camp is given the cursory, if not entirely satisfying explanation that Melanie’s parents were Jewish-American expats living in Paris at the time of the war.
“Emotional Arithmetic” revolves around a reunion between Melanie and Jakob Bronski (Max von Sydow), the noted author and fellow Drancy detainee who took the young Melanie under his wing at the time and, in a selfless act of heroism, volunteered to take her place on the Auschwitz convoy. When the now-elderly Jakob travels to Quebec at Melanie’s invitation, he surprises her by arriving in the company of Christopher Lewis (Gabriel Byrne), a non-Jewish Irishman who had been interred at Drancy by mistake and whose boyhood infatuation with Melanie has been little dulled by the passing decades.
This gives rise to a roundelay of predictable dramatic conflicts, as Melanie and Christopher ponder the life they might have shared and David stirs with jealousy, all during the preparations for an overly symbolic family dinner during which the unspoken tension simmers to a boil.
Barzman, who previously directed von Sydow in 1994’s “Time Is Money,” fares better with his actors, particularly Plummer, who brings a rich variety of shadings to what might have been a cookie-cutter gruff patriarch role. Only Sarandon flounders a bit in a sketchily defined role that’s a bit like one of those “problem” characters in a 1950s melodrama, whose exact psychological ailment is never pinpointed and whose family seems to think that tucking her away out of public view is the best possible therapy.
Pic also benefits from Barzman’s strong visual imagination and rewarding collaboration with ace d.p. Luc Montpellier (who shot Sarah Polley’s “Away From Her” and Guy Maddin’s “The Saddest Music in the World”). Together, they conceive of the pic’s flashback scenes as abstract, dreamlike affairs in which the action plays out against enlarged photographic backdrops, while contempo scenes are filmed in breathtaking, color-saturated widescreen.