I Don’t Know If I’m Coming or Going: An Appreciation of “Nine Lives”

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Some wonderful things happen in the moments prior to a film screening. Strangers in the audience strike up a conversation, connections are made and in some cases, lives are forever altered. It was at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre where I met two film students, Nabil Aboud and Gabe Lyons, who were attending my alma mater, Columbia College. They had created a film club, “Videre Societas,” that met on Friday nights, and it sounded like the perfect opportunity for me to inhabit the role of film professor as a sort of dress rehearsal for the potential future. I’ve been a guest speaker at two club meetings thus far, and they’ve both been glorious. My first hand-picked selection was naturally David Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr.”, my all-time favorite film. For my second selection, I thought it would be interesting to pair “Rope,” the most underrated film by my favorite filmmaker, Alfred Hitchcock, with a scene from another criminally overlooked gem, Rodrigo García’s 2005 masterpiece, “Nine Lives.”

A few days later, I found myself having lunch with Guillermo del Toro at Ebertfest in Champaign, Illinois. He sat down next to me, and rather than dissolve into a bundle of nerves (after all, he had directed what I considered to be the best film of 2006, “Pan’s Labyrinth”), I began to chat with him about the Hitchcock class he teaches every year in Toronto. Our mutual encyclopedic knowledge of Hitch resulted in us having a marvelous conversation about the director’s work. Del Toro likened the Master of Suspense to Luis Buñuel, while pointing out that “the only difference between Buñuel and Hitchcock is that Buñuel got laid.” He considered Hitchcock to be “a gay filmmaker,” as observed in his portrayal of repressed sexuality, and insisted that the divisive ending to 1941’s “Suspicion,” which I had always dismissed as a cop-out, was better than the director’s preferred version. The way Cary Grant put his arm around Joan Fontaine in the film’s final frames made the ending deliciously ambiguous in del Toro’s mind, and looking at it again, it’s hard to argue with him.

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After telling him about the film club screening in which I had discussed “Nine Lives,” del Toro said that he believed it was García’s best film. He also mentioned that he discovered his leading lady for “Crimson Peak,” Mia Wasikowska, in the first season of García’s magnificent HBO series, “In Treatment.” I explained to him that the reason why I paired the films for the students was because they featured my favorite examples of the unbroken take. When Hitchcock attempted to craft a film that would be nearly devoid of cuts, the technique was unheard of in 1948. García’s “Nine Lives” was released a year prior to Alfonso Cuarón’s great “Children of Men,” which demonstrated the visceral power of long takes courtesy of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, whose tour de force achievement foreshadowed the subsequent work that would earn him three consecutive Oscars. In contrast, Xavier Grobet’s camera in “Nine Lives” is much more subtle in its brilliance. Like “Rope,” the film consists of nine takes, yet in this case, each take is a self-contained vignette that follows a woman during a pivotal moment in her life. It’s worth noting that the film’s executive producer is Alejandro González Iñárritu, who famously experimented with extended takes in “Birdman” and “The Revenant” (for the record, del Toro told me that he has little interest in utilizing long takes, and is quite happy that a three-minute shot in “Crimson Peak” is entirely inconspicuous).

For decades, “Rope” had been deemed a misfire not only by critics and colleagues, but by Hitchcock himself, who referred to it as a nonsensical “stunt.” Even Donald Spoto, one of the most vital Hitchcock historians, claimed that the long takes in “Rope” contradicted “the basic nature of film itself,” though in The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, he goes on to indirectly illuminate the film’s genius. He mentions “Perpetual Movement No. 1,” the song composed by Francis Poulenc (who happened to be gay), that is played on the piano by Philip (Farley Granger), a closeted man who committed murder with his lover, Brandon (John Dall), a la Leopold and Loeb. Philip’s former teacher, Rupert (James Stewart), suspects foul play and approaches Philip at the piano, switching on a lamp that serves as an interrogation light. His conversation with Philip goes around in circles, thus mirroring the composition’s repetitious melody. Rupert then turns on a metronome that mechanically ticks down the seconds until Philip inevitably spills the beans. “The song is appropriate, perhaps, not only because the camera is in perpetual motion throughout ‘Rope,’ but because, ironically, the inner state of the principal characters is in an endless cycle of only apparent movement which is in itself a spiritual stasis,” writes Spoto.

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That sense of stasis is felt by all of the characters in “Nine Lives,” who find themselves trapped in situations that have stagnated their growth. My favorite scene (and the one I paired with “Rope”) features Robin Wright as a pregnant wife who runs into her former flame (Jason Isaacs) at the supermarket. As they talk, they settle into the playful rhythms of their past courtship, strolling down aisles that were built for couples to walk down side by side. Yet the coziness turns claustrophobic as Wright awakens to reality, as if breaking out of a trance. When Isaacs asks Wright for her husband’s name, she resists, explaining, “If I say his name to you right now, I won’t know if I’m coming or going.” One aspect of the film that becomes clearer upon repeat viewings is the way in which each woman’s story echoes throughout the surrounding vignettes. The first scene establishes the recurring theme of imprisonment by focusing on a mother (Elpidia Carrillo) in jail. Later on, we see a budding adult (Amanda Seyfried) who is encouraged by her parents to leave home and “spread her wings,” despite the fact that her father (Ian McShane) suffers from a debilitating illness, and her mother (Sissy Spacek) is teetering on the brink of exhaustion. Faced with her childhood home haunted by memories of abuse, a tormented woman (LisaGay Hamilton) exclaims, “This place is a f—king graveyard,” a line that eerily hints at the setting for the film’s final scene. The lyrics of a childhood song Hamilton recites with her sister, “We are made of dreams and bones,” turn up again in the film’s warmest segment, as a patient (Kathy Baker) grows temperamental while preparing for her mastectomy. “I’m so angry with you,” she rants at her husband (Joe Mantegna). “What did I do?” he asks. “I don’t know, ever since I was diagnosed, I’ve hated your guts,” she replies.

By juxtaposing these tales of alienation, García invites us to draw connections between them, thereby illustrating how mankind is united by our shared yearnings, frustrations and vulnerabilities. A featurette on the film’s DVD shows García and Grobet choreographing the film’s fourth segment, which centers on a couple (Holly Hunter and Stephen Dillane) whose relationship has begun to resemble, in the words of Woody Allen, a dead shark. While visiting another couple (Isaacs and Molly Parker) at their apartment, the reflection of Isaacs (who we’ve previously seen with Wright) and Parker is visible in a mirror placed behind Hunter and Dillane, enabling the doomed couples to literally mirror one another. According to the featurette, the idea of the mirror was dreamed up on the spot by Grobet, and stands as a key example of the instinctual poetry he expresses visually throughout the film. I will refrain from discussing the final, perfect scene with Glenn Close and Dakota Fanning, except to say that it affirms the film’s message that the past causes us to remain frozen in time, and the only way we can move forward is by bidding it adieu. “Nine Lives” is one of the best films I’ve ever seen, and now that I’ve viewed the insipid trailer for an upcoming film with the same title (about a man who transforms into a cat), it’s high time that people rediscover this enduring cinematic treasure. It is guaranteed to mesmerize you, move you, and at the very least, make you feel less alone.

“Nine Lives” can be purchased or rented on Amazon.

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