Close to Eden

(aka A Stranger Among Us, Sidney Lumet, USA, 1992)


In his fascinating book A Cinema Without Walls, Timothy Corrigan tries to put a finger on the strange mood that permeates so many contemporary films. No longer sporting solid story lines and consistent characters, movies today offer an experience akin to cruising through a glitzy shopping centre: something for everyone, with a thick, dreamy atmosphere, but very little of substance.

Veteran director Sidney Lumet’s Close to Eden is the perfect example of Corrigan’s theory. It is a very queer mish-mash of elements, marked by a strange mood of dissociation. It is partly a rather listless and passionless thriller, with Melanie Griffith as a cop going undercover in the Jewish Hasidic community to investigate a murder. It is partly an old-fashioned, cross-cultural romance in the manner of Witness (1985), with Griffith falling hopelessly for devout Ariel (Eric Thal) – he is bookish, withdrawn, strictly moral, seemingly from another time and place; she is a modern girl with all the available urban neuroses. It is also, in scattered moments, a buddy film, and a family melodrama.

Mainly, however, Close to Eden is a lengthy, soft-focus documentary on the Hasidic way of life. Lumet directs the film is if he were David Maybury-Lewis from Millennium, stumbling upon an exotic, foreign tribe in his own backyard. The viewer, like Griffith’s character, is positioned as an outsider, a tourist taking in the sights: dancing, bread making, men poring over the Talmud, mystic quotations from the Kabbala …

Yet nothing in the film has any weight or power – a sad comedown for the director who once gave us Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Prince of the City (1981). Lumet has clearly become obsessed (here and in his later work more generally) with the patchwork texture of contemporary, multi-cultural life, and with a certain vague, diffuse moodiness.

Close to Eden is easy enough on the eye and ear, and even a little intriguing – especially given that the screenwriter Robert J. Avrech’s other, major credit is on De Palma’s Body Double (1984). But it evaporates the instant it is over.

MORE Lumet: Fail-Safe, Guilty as Sin, Night Falls on Manhattan, Power, 12 Angry Men, The Morning After

© Adrian Martin November 1992

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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