This one may have flown under your radar, but if you missed it and you're a fan of independent films and serious cinema, you really should check out "Nine Lives." In this low-budget production, director Rodrigo Garcia ("The Sopranos," "Six Feet Under") uses nine continuous takes to tell about a moment in the lives of nine female characters from the L.A. area. By filming in real time, what Garcia does, of course, is to reinforce a sense of reality and immediacy. And to help him do that, he's assembled an all-star cast who relish the chance to work with a single take, rather than being afraid of the demand for 10 to 14 minutes of perfection. Those are the film's great strengths—the concept, the camerawork, and the acting.
First up is Elpida Carrillo, who plays Sandra, a young mother serving time in LA County Jail for a crime that's never revealed, only later vaguely implied. None of these segments is rich with information or backstory. It's all there in the present—moments of personal crisis that only suggest the lives that these women lead. Unlike Robert Altman's "Short Cuts," which wove together a handful of Ray Carver short stories and created overlapping situations and character encounters, this script pretty much offers nine separate case studies—one right after the other with no transitions—that DO have some overlapping late in the film, but not enough for it to be thematically or narratively significant. In other words, it's even more minimalist than "Short Cuts."
In all of the segments, the emphasis is on moments of painful truth: Robin Wright plays Diana, a pregnant woman who meets a former lover (also married) in the supermarket and contemplates an affair; Lisa Gay Hamilton is Holly, an apparently abused woman who returns to the scene of the crime; Holly Hunter is Sonia, who comes to realize at a dinner party that her relationship is over; Amanda Seyfried is Samantha, a teenager who has to cope with the strained relationship of her parents; Amy Brenneman is Lorna, who runs into an ex- at the funeral of his wife; Sissy Spacek is Ruth, who can't bear her husband's disability any longer and ends up with another man; Kathy Baker is Camille, who faces cancer surgery; and Glenn Close is Maggie, who tries to cope with her own loss by having a picnic with a little girl (Dakota Fanning).
As you might expect, not all the segments are equally successful, and how viewers respond to them may actually vary according to whatever "baggage" the viewers bring to the film. In a sense, that's what minimalism demands: more interaction with the audience, who is expected to speculate on the rest of these women's lives and, depending on whatever past experiences they bring to the film, try to connect the dots in order to come up with an overriding resonant theme. But that can also be a liability, because the segments themselves, while fascinating and well-done, don't have a built-in resonance as a whole, or tell us something beyond what we're able to see in the individual episodes. As a result, more than a few viewers may walk away from this thinking, So? Yes, the struggles seem to build toward he ninth life, when death is confronted, but the film feels as if it could have been much more resonant.
Another problem with "Nine Lives" is that by choosing to focus on moments of crises, the episodes start to become predictable. Each segment quickly presents a situation and moves just as quickly to a moment of crisis, and it doesn't take a Ph.D. in film studies or human behavior to sense where the episode is going. And as the scene shifts from one shrill crisis to another, it all starts to feel one-note.
Garcia, who's the son of literature Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, admits to being drawn to the short narrative format, and things like this are harder to pull off than they look. His first feature film, "Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her" (2000), which was made for cable TV, told the story of five women from different backgrounds whose lives intersected. Baker, Carillo, Close, and Hunter also appeared in this one, which had considerably more interconnection and, as a result (one might argue), more resonance. Then came "Ten Tiny Love Stories" (2001), in which Baker appeared again, as well as Lisa Gay Hamilton. As the title implies, it was 10 women talking directly into the camera sharing their stories about some of their most memorable relationships and their thoughts about love. It was as if Garcia was fascinated by the technique used in "When Harry Met Sally" and decided to do a whole movie using direct testimonies. In each case, Garcia has gravitated toward telling the stories of women and the ways in which life wears them down (and they try to rise above it). He loves ensembles, and he loves trying different things—and for that, you have to love him.
Video: For an independent film, the quality is quite good. The DVD is mastered in High Definition in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, and while they're slight graininess in outdoor and diffused lighting, the overall look is pretty sharp.
Audio: The audio is a robust Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, which almost seems like overkill given the strictly ambient background for the nine episodes. With subtitles in English, French, and Spanish, the director obviously felt his film would appeal to a wide audience. Here, as with the video, the sound is quite good.
Extras: Garcia, Brenneman, Hamilton, Baker and Mantegna appear in the most interesting extra on a roughly filmed panel at the Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute.
The format was relaxed and the actors were forthcoming with their remarks and felt free to share plenty of jokes as well. It's a fun feature to watch, and one which may teach aspiring actors and filmmakers a great deal.
My colleague, Eddie Feng, has observed that the trend toward producing "featurettes" is because studios have to pay more if the feature goes longer. But the problem, of course, is that the short features aren't conducive to any depth, and the four short ones included here are a perfect example. They're like teasers that leave you wanting more. The best of the bunch is one that shows how extensively Garcia plans his continuous shots.
Bottom Line: Just as he's been experimenting with topics—small burdens, love, major crises—Rodrigo Garcia also seems to be playing with numbers. He went from five to 10 and then nine characters for his ensemble films, apparently trying to discover what number works best in order to create a modular structure rather than a linear—which, again, seems to be his natural inclination. And when he finds just the right number and just the right subject, I'm guessing that film will be his masterpiece. In any case, he's an interesting director to watch. "Nine Lives" isn't a master work, but it's still a fascinating piece of filmmaking.