In 2013, Sally Potter lost her younger brother, artist and musician Nic Potter, to early onset dementia, although the disease is so cruel, one could say that she began losing him a couple years earlier — that he started to disappear on her in 2010 — and that her film “The Roads Not Taken” is the celebrated director’s abstract way of coping with his death. The time Potter spent caring for Nic no doubt inspired the character of Leo, played by Javier Bardem, in a film in which the actor works awfully hard at communicating things that neither the audience nor his on-screen daughter Molly (Elle Fanning) can reasonably understand.
The movie is an exasperating puzzle with most of the pieces missing, set over the course of one day, and centered on the idea that while Leo looks braindead to everyone around him — everyone but Molly, whose sympathy reads more like an irresponsible form of denial — his mind is off on an adventure of its own, imagining what might have been if his life had taken a different course. In one scenario, Leo never left Mexico, but stayed behind to marry his sweetheart Dolores (Salma Hayek), a woman he describes to Molly as “my beautiful disaster.” In another, he sits at a bar by the sea on a Greek island, contemplating how to conclude a novel he started writing decades earlier.
“What kind of endings do you like in books?” he asks a lovely young tourist. “The kind that come quickest,” you may be tempted to shout in Potter’s uniquely frustrating yet undoubtedly personal sally into territory that makes sense only to her, or to those who’ve shared the misfortune of watching the light fade from a loved one’s eyes. This is “therapy through filmmaking” of the most alienating sort, in which Fanning represents a young woman who cares too much, while the movie gives audiences scant reason to care at all.
With Leo all but unresponsive in bed, the film’s first five minutes suggest we could be in for a sequel to “The Sea Inside,” in which Bardem played a poet confined to bed after breaking his back, although the movie has more in common with the bottomless miserabilism of the actor’s performance in “Biutiful” (arguably the least beautiful film of the last decade). Bardem has a striking face, with sad, dark eyes and a heavy brow that slopes forward into a broad, flat nose, like some kind of solemn ancient carving. The actor can be radiant and downright seductive as well, when required, although Potter doesn’t require it here. Instead, she relies on his forlorn side, which masks untold mysteries about the character.
Who was Leo in his previous life — technically, his current one, although he’s about as responsive as an aubergine most of the time? We’re told that he’s lived in the United States for 30 years, although he doesn’t sound like it. We meet his ex-wife Rita (Laura Linney) during an unplanned detour to the emergency room, though it’s hard to imagine his genes and hers producing anything like Elle Fanning. It’s heartbreaking to watch a man in Leo’s condition wallow in bed, seemingly depressed, or else gone on one of his alternate-reality sojourns — like “The Fisher King” or another of those Terry Gilliam movies about delusion-prone dreamers.
Molly manages to get him up, missing out on an important day of work in order to escort him by taxi to the dentist (where he wets himself) and the optometrist (where he steals a stranger’s dog, provoking a racist diatribe). Their activities are mundane but undoubtedly familiar to anyone who’s been in Molly’s position. Wives, sisters, daughters are often called upon to put their own lives on hold to support those of ailing men, and that sacrifice is as much a theme as the existences Leo imagines.
It’s generous of Potter to picture him traveling down these roads not taken, interwoven into his waking reality. But it’s doubly sad to see Leo suffering from the same condition in each of these parallel universes. Wouldn’t a flashback to his youthful fling with Dolores be more appropriate than showing him stuck in her bed, or looking catatonically out to sea somewhere in Greece? Is Potter trying to tell us that all roads would have led to the same place, with a kind of loneliness in which Leo is barely capable of recognizing his loved ones?
What has he lost on the way to such a tragic state? Was he artistic? Funny? A good father? Potter withholds those details, and there are no clues to be found in Bardem’s black-hole performance, which stings us with its watery-eyed woe. Doctors, cops and strangers discuss his condition as if Leo were not in the room, and Molly takes umbrage each time that happens. Leo has a name; he’s a person, Molly insists. But even to audiences, he’s barely there. Together with co-editors Emilie Orsini and Jason Rayton, Potter orchestrates a certain amount of confusion by design, as if trying to offer an impressionistic sense of Leo’s deteriorating condition. For a more successful implementation of that strategy, see French playwright Florian Zeller’s “Le Père,” which earned Tonys on Broadway and is now a film called “The Father” with Anthony Hopkins. In it, a proud patriarch’s dementia plays tricks with reality.
In Leo’s case, he’s already gone. Rita thinks it might be time to … Molly doesn’t let her finish the sentence, but nobody, not even her, believes that Leo’s going to be blessed with a dramatic recovery. The movie ends where it begins, in Leo’s apartment, with him back in bed. It’s an arduous journey for all involved, perhaps us most of all, since we never knew these characters when times were good.
To her credit, Potter has never taken the easy route. In “Orlando” (her lone “hit”), she and actor Tilda Swinton blurred gender lines. In “Yes,” her characters spoke in Shakespearean verse. Although she consistently defies market considerations, in some other universe, she might have made a version of this story with the public in mind. But this was clearly something she had to get off her shoulders — a necessary step in her own artistic journey.