The Roads Not Taken

(Sally Potter, UK/USA/Sweden, 2020)


The total effect is to say: yes, this is how we are. Apparently separated from each other by class, age, gender and any number of other differences and divisions, but we spring from the same source. We are linked. In reality it is one for all and all for one. Ultimately, that is the only perspective that makes sense.

– Sally Potter (1994) on Bicycle Thieves


Sometimes there are complicated narrative films (from the past decade, Holy Motors [2012] and Road to Nowhere [2010] are examples) that one can watch and come away, afterwards, with the impression that, more or less, you got it all – you can cohere the scattered pieces and split levels, at least. You’re even proud of yourself for grasping – perhaps with some difficulty, and against the odds – the basic logic of the thing. But then, one way or another, you discover that you didn’t have that logic right. In fact, you had it wildly wrong. You cohered an altogether different film in your head, and now you have to scramble to reorient yourself in relation to the consensus view (or the Wikipedia summary). It’s not necessarily a nice experience, this reorientation. Couldn’t I have been left in peace with my perfect fantasy?


This is what happened to me with the odd The Roads Not Taken – despite some strong moments, and the brave, in-the-moment performance of Elle Fanning, not among Sally Potter’s best works (see The Tango Lesson [1997] for the tops).


Leo (Javier Bardem) is suffering from a form of frontal lobe dementia. He’s “absent”, outwardly inexpressive (his face muscles are set in a glum blankness), and dissociated from most of the everyday reality around him. Sometimes he parrots a word he hears, seemingly in a meaningful way, in recognition or response; mostly, however, he just grunts “hmm” – his most frequent line of dialogue. Nobody – not his daughter Molly (Fanning), ex-wife Rita (Laura Linney) or paid carer Xenia (Branka Katić) – can really get through to him, or understand the occasional words or gestures he produces.


To a casual eye, Leo might seem merely massively depressed; he spends a lot of time in bed, as the bleak, opening image impresses on us. Living on his own in New York – apparently through an act of wilful choice that has somehow been upheld through the development of his dementia – Leo inevitably finds the barrage of urban sights and sounds in this all-too-close environment confusing and upsetting (Potter’s stylised treatment of such events recalls previous “mentally disturbed guys in the big city” films by Lodge Kerrigan or Lynne Ramsay). The thought or visual reminder of a long-ago dog can make Leo cry uncontrollably – or even compel him to grab somebody else’s mutt as an instant replacement.


To some of the various health professionals and random citizens he encounters, Leo looks just recalcitrant, uncommunicative, “out of it”, maybe drunk or in a drugged stupor. For Molly, trying to get him to a dentist and then an optometrist via an unscheduled stop at the Emergency ward, this adds up to a headlong, stressful gauntlet on par with Adam Sandler’s trajectory in Uncut Gems (2019) – scenes where DOP Robbie Ryan can do his best, anti-picturesque work. Leo’s evident Mexicanness invites racist insults from strangers in stores and on the streets (only an Indian cab driver, in one of the film’s better scenes, shows him any genuine empathy). Molly keeps righteously pointing out that people talk about Leo in the third person while he’s sitting right in front of them. She seems to be the only person who can build even a fraction of ongoing, functional rapport with Leo – although he can just as easily wander out the door (barefoot, no less) on her, too, in his usual dissociative daze.


It’s a movie about how people attempt to cope with the mental illness of those they love; and it’s also, on a woollier and less grounded level, a fistful of metaphors concerning cultural displacement, non-assimilation, casual intolerance and daily, grinding injustice. But it’s not a realist portrait of any of that, finally; rather, it’s a projection into Leo’s inner life (or, in an inescapable intertextual echo from Bardem’s star career, his Sea Inside). A hypothetical projection, naturally, since we cannot genuinely “see into” the mental activity of a person with dementia.


Leo repeatedly goes to a couple of places in his head, thanks to cinema. Back to Dolores (Salma Hayek) in Mexico; while he lolls listlessly in bed, she determinedly sets out for a ritual ceremony that will, in some way, reconnect her with their dead son. He rages, she pleads, they argue in the car and out on the dusty road, finally embracing each other in some spooky place of mourning. And Leo also flies in his mind to a sunny Greek island, where he has gone to write a novel; there he becomes attracted to young, blonde Anni (Milena Tscharntke) – not erotically (I think, although Anni’s no-nonsense companion certainly suspects otherwise), but because she is a stand-in for the now-adult daughter (i.e., Molly) he left behind in USA.


Partly led on by the associative cuts and transitions that return us to the merry ‘60s era of Two for the Road (1967) or Petulia (1968) – the particular period of (ultimately ephemeral) stylistic liberation I eagerly discuss in the “Ever-Tested Limit” chapter of Mysteries of Cinema – I took these exotic (and at times clichéd) parts of the film as, more or less, flashbacks. Maybe with elements of “retouching”, compensation, fantasy in and for Leo’s battered psyche (à la David Lynch, but with less Gothic). As I watched, I noticed – and then shoved out of my cognition – certain discrepancies: it’s hard to establish or arrange the chronology of Leo’s two major marital relationships (to Dolores and to Rita), and it’s a bummer trying to square just what Leo achieved (and how long it took him) on that pleasant isle.


But I was way off the track! The main clue or pointer is right there even in the Wiki synopsis: “Leo is reliving parallel versions of his life in his mind”. Oh god, it’s another mind-game movie! And also a somewhat New Age one – an ethos that sometimes surfaces in Potter’s previous films, such as Yes (2005), and in the quotation on De Sica prefacing this review. But what precisely does this mean: parallel versions of a life? It was only on cross-checking with Norwegian film critic Dag Sødtholt that I came to realise Leo had never spent years combating Dolores in Mexico, nor did he laze for very long in the Greek sun like Leonard Cohen.


Dolores was just a first love, a “childhood sweetheart” as Rita explains at his hospital bedside; and the trip to Mexico was a dream he abandoned almost immediately, coming straight back home (the nature of “home” and belonging, however, constituting another many-sided theme sprayed around here by Potter). Why, in reality, did Leo’s marriage to Rita (and his family trio involving Molly) disintegrate? I’m not certain (beyond his seemingly vain egotism), but we may have learned more about this in an entire other “parallel life” section wholly expunged from the final cut: a gay love story starring Chris Rock!


Take a look at Leo’s parallel lives; they are weird. They have fantasy or wish-fulfilment premises: to have stayed with one’s first love; to have struck out as a romantic writer. Yes, those Roads Not Taken! But they are laid out – and Leo supposedly experiences them – more as protracted, unfolding life-lessons. The laying-out or unfolding effect relates to an insistent mythological motif: Leo’s quasi-Homeric journeys (the journey is another prime New Age motif), whether by foot, car or boat. But how often can this Homer make it home?


With Dolores, there is nothing but the difficulty of facing death. And in Greece, the writer writes nothing: we see his pen poised above a blank page (remember L. Cohen: “the rain falls down on last year’s man …”); he points to his own deep-thinking brain where that writing is germinating (every writer needs choice, subtitled screenshots from this movie for their computer desktop); and he talks to Anni about his inability to complete his book, to find an ending for it. Eventually, he will row out in vain to a disco cruise ship where Anni parties, losing his mind or maybe even his life in the process.


So Leo lives out being unhappily married, and achieving complete failure as a creative writer; he’s agonised and depressed in one tale, unfulfilled and probably dead in the other. Wow, that’s the kind of dissociative fantasy life I really crave! Leo’s imaginings are basically projections of guilt and remorse – even for things he didn’t actually do in reality. Yet the film portrays him on some manner of therapeutic, mental journey of self-realisation and discovery; that culminates when he finally utters his daughter’s name (Molly was, in fact, the project’s working title).


So the thematic “argument” of the script would seem to be: if you regret your life now, just plunge into the alternative lives you would have regretted far more! Which is, frankly, the famous It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) logic of apologia. Now, Potter is no fan of the politically conservative status quo (as Frank Capra may have been) and is clearly not trying to excuse all that it entails – but you can see, all the same, where the New Age drift takes her, ultimately. “We are linked. In reality it is one for all and all for one”. As Leo might well respond: hmm.


I’ve said above – without researching it on any medical level – that we cannot see or know the inner, mental life of a person afflicted with dementia. Movies, for their part (from Charly [1968] to Awakenings [1990], even, in a blackly humorous vein, Shock Corridor [1963]), are obsessed with stories of permanent or (more usually) temporary “recovery” from dementia: moments or periods of lucidity, “reawakenings”, where the dissociated person suddenly snaps back into normal life and gets not only to relate his or her experience, but also to declare various position-papers on the pinnacles of humanist love and understanding they’ve miraculously arrived at. Yet how, in reality, could such an inner journey be possible for someone with dementia?


It’s an almost grandiose form of wish-fulfilment – not for the mentally sick, but precisely for the “well” among us, the carers (this film’s real, if uncertain or unavowed, focus), who desperately want to believe that the absent loved one is still, somehow or somewhere, present, still themselves. Molly literally gets to say to her father in the final scene: “No matter what, you will always be you”. But is that so?


The entire movie builds – despite all the realism of its everyday, hurly-burly scenes – to Leo’s single, near-magical moment of clarity. The very final grace note of The Roads Not Taken even seems to shift the possibility of willed dissociation onto Molly as a magical gift: she can stay and she can go (that’s her dilemma of choice, like in the Clash song), all at once! Well, maybe …

MORE Potter: Orlando

© Adrian Martin 2 May 2020

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search