Love in the Looking Glass

Issue section: 

Emma Bircham on a disturbing tale of modern America.

More than anything in the world 12 year old Aviva wants to be pregnant. She succeeds after her first perfunctory encounter with a boy her own age, but her parents force her to abort. During the abortion there are complications that mean she will never be able to conceive. This information is kept from the sweet, naive Aviva, who runs away from home, beginning her futile quest to become pregnant again.

Among her misadventures, she stumbles upon the home of a group of fanatical Christians plotting to kill an abortion doctor. She is reunited with the ex-con, born again Christian trucker, soon to be murderer, who had earlier picked her up hitchhiking, used her for sex, and then abandoned her at the side of the road - the romantic hero of the film. Aviva's feelings of love and loyalty for this man lead her to join him as he shoots dead the abortion doctor and the doctor's young child, before he commits suicide himself.

Pass the popcorn.

Critics have been divided as to whether Palindromes is 'enthralling' and Todd Solondz's 'best film yet' or 'tasteless and exploitative'. Whatever your view, it is deeply uncomfortable to watch. Rarely has the emotional bleakness of modern America been painted so starkly.

There are so many reasons why you might dislike this film. First, there is the fact that Aviva is portrayed by eight different actors: two women, four girls, one 12 year old boy, and one six year old girl, interchanged randomly throughout the film, with no relation to the plot. Solondz did this to experiment with how audiences identify with a character based on appearance. He acknowledges the risk that this may be seen as a cheap trick, but 'Aviva' is so clearly recognisable in each person who plays her that we retain a sufficient sense of continuity to carry the plot.

A second major criticism of Palindromes has to do with Solondz's treatment of abortion, which is seen by some as too ambiguous. The pro-lifers are portrayed as hypocritical lunatics, but pro-choice arguments are not well presented, and two points in particular may offend. The 'abortion leads to infertility' quickstep skirts the edge of misinformation, and the idea of foetuses on rubbish heaps (searched by the fanatics in order to give them a Christian burial) is wholly misleading.

Solondz has said that this isn't 'an issue film'. He didn't want the audience to be able to relax on the question of abortion, 'safe in his liberal hands' - not because he is undecided himself, but because 'that isn't what the film is about'. Solondz seems to intend a critique of the terms of the whole debate, and the deeply alienated society in which that debate takes place. Accepted as such, it does its job.

A third complaint about the film stems from audience discomfort at the way in which Solondz once again sympathetically portrays even the most socially repulsive characters. But by allowing these characters to be more than two-dimensional, he forces them back into society's conscience and doesn't allow them to simply be cast out as deviant individuals for whom we accept no responsibility. This is to be applauded. We exist as part of society and our beliefs, attitudes, values and ideas can only be understood in that context. Solondz doesn't shy away from showing the human products of a deeply dysfunctional capitalism.

But it is here that we come on to a more fundamental problem with the film's outlook. Characters seem to be portrayed simply as products of their environment and not agents that are capable of changing it. This sounds like a knee-jerk critique using very crude criteria. But it is precisely the message of Palindromes that everything begins as it ends, and human agency, self-development and self-realisation are ultimately unattainable. For Solondz, Aviva represents all of us. She begins as she ends, her name is a palindrome, and her quest is futile. Solondz has said that 'like a palindrome, the world is unchanged and unchanging: it is all in a looking-glass.' It is this that is most troubling about the film. The rest of the criticisms can be left to the mainstream press.

Solondz claims this is 'a love story... like any story worth telling'. To the extent that this is true, it is what makes the film fascinating and appealing despite all said above. If this is a love story, it must be one of unrequited love between Aviva and the world she lives in. She is mistreated at every turn, and yet sees it all as part of the miracle of love - soon, she hopes, to be life.

Aviva is stalking a world that can't offer her the solace she seeks, and yet through all the abuse and ugliness she soldiers on, hoping that it is there. This is a film about a society so dysfunctional that even its children - its wealthy, healthy, lovingly-parented children - will try anything to overcome the loneliness and meaninglessness of their lives. This is painful to watch, but it is not handled carelessly. It is an advanced study of alienation and, as such, is a powerful film.

Director Todd Solondz
Release date: 6 May