Sophie’s Choice (1982, Alan J. Pakula)

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Wow, this is a troubling film, and I think not for the reasons intended. Ambitious, oversized, and feverishly hyperemotional, Sophie’s Choice — from William Styron’s popular, indulgent novel — is a recipe more for a sprawling soap opera than a movie, but narratively, it’s one case in which a perhaps obsessive attention to source material detail pays off. A little bit silly, perhaps, a little bit showy and cartoonish, a little bit trashy even, it remains entirely absorbing. Director Alan J. Pakula had many different roles at various times, but one of the most curious is his service as enabler to Styron’s utterly shameless egotism, whereby the writer (represented clearly in the story, of course) uses massive tragedy as a roadblock in his own supposed maturity while casting himself as a sensitive, onlooking cipher in either the most insular and purple kind of autobiography or the most naked sort of wish fulfillment.

What lands lands outstandingly — Meryl Streep’s performance as belaguered, fragile Holocaust survivor Sophie, whose memories add up to the manic depressiveness of the household, is a bit gimmicky and doesn’t have quite the depth it longs for, but its sheer physicality is breathtaking. Kevin Kline, meanwhile, is the face that will haunt you forever here, and he is the reason you see the movie; he is wonderful in his first major screen performance as a troubled semi-academic named Nathan with a tendency for alcoholic fits of rage against the woman he loves. The film describes him as a schizophrenic, but his periodically violent anger is so startling it seems reductive to look at him as anything but the writer’s conscience. All of this is observed by — of course — budding novelist Stingo, a Southern — of course — boy who quickly falls for Sophie and yearns to dig into her past.

Several things about the movie are quite interesting and almost offset its overlength. There’s the menage a trois budding under the surface, there’s the over-the-top but strangely vital and real insanity of the star couple, there’s Pakula’s visual strength, and there is the splendid immediacy of the emotion throughout. For all its particularly vivid evocation of postwar Brooklyn, it is truly a movie about monumentally fucked up people who love one another, and gets its central coming-of-age tale across nicely. And then there are the fascinating, terrifying Auschwitz sequences, which — from their dismal color design to the utter menace in nearly every face — constitute some of the most accomplished filmmaking of Pakula’s career.

The film’s credibility is strained a bit by things like its Harold & Maude-like use of Nazi shorthand to add gravity to what is finally a film just as goofy as any Hollywood romantic epic, in which regard it uncomfortably recalls the odd juxtaposition of florid melodramatics and News of the World pastiche in Doctor Zhivago. It even feels a little tasteless to have Meryl Streep flamboyantly bludgeon the title role, not least because it’s so hard to detect whether Styron’s heart is ever in the right place, and therefore whether Pakula has any right to enliven these memories for him and therefore us.

I may as well stop talking circles around what I’m getting at. See — is it just me, or is it, like, incredibly fucking disturbing that the explanation and visualization of the titular choice is immediately, and I mean immediately, followed by not merely a sex scene involving Sophie but a voiceover about just how hot and hard and heavy it was?? Combining stuff like this with the self-indulgent length, I’m left wondering if it’s ever a great idea for movie world to adhere so strictly to a single writer’s paginated whims.

(And also fuck you guys for that asshole-librarian sequence.)

[Marginal expansion of a 2007 review.]

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