Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sophie's Choice (1982)

By Eric Jessen 8/22/09

Sophie's Choice is a heart-melting, tear-jerking guilt trip. Layers of intrigue unfold with an exploitive, manipulative touch blurring our memory of gratuitous posturing.
The first layer has a campy artificial glow. We meet Stingo (Peter MacNicol), a sweet southern writer who has moved to a cute old boardinghouse in Brooklyn, and an odd couple, Sophie (Meryl Streep), a Polish immigrant and her lover Nathan (Kevin Kline). They are a match made in cliché threesome heaven. Sophie is beautiful but vulnerable and naïve. Nathan is erratic and abusive but exciting. And Stingo is the perfect third wheel, soft-spoken and thin-skinned, standing idly by watching Sophie and Nathan's destructive relationship, worshiping Sophie while subtly loathing Nathan. Scene after dull, predictable scene our threesome play the same game. Sophie and Stingo begin a conversation. They seem to be connecting. Then suddenly in pops Nathan with his strange but fun-at-heart antics, stealing Sophie's attention. The camera focuses on Stingo as Nathan and Sophie kiss and cuddle. We see him look down at his feet, pouting like a sad puppy. Awkwardness sets in.
These opening scenes are kind of boring and much too clean but I think maybe intentionally so. After 30 minutes we are lulled to a near sleep, already tired of the characters. I was thinking, did Streep really win best actress for this? But little did we know that in Sophie's Choice when you chip away the layer of campy fun (?) underneath you'll find a thicker layer of gut-wrenching melodrama and guilt mongering exploitation.
To our surprise both Nathan and Sophie have “ugly” secrets. We learn Nathan's occasional rant or tirade and dressing-up-in-costumes exuberance can be explained by his paranoid schizophrenia and cocaine addiction. (Only in the movies does a short temper, jealousy and enthusiasm indicate mental disorder and a drug habit). This strange revelation coming near the end was an unnecessary jolt. The cocaine piece was too much. I think mental disease would have been more than enough. And Nathan was already forgotten by this point. Our attention was totally wrapped in Sophie.
Early in the movie we saw that Sophie had a number tattoo indicating she was a prisoner of the Holocaust. And in one of the heart-to-heart talks with Stingo she alluded to problems she had with her father in Poland. (I put the Holocaust stuff in my memory banks expecting it to come up later.) Then midway through the movie Sophie once again sat down with Stingo, the camera closed in on Meryl Streep's face (this is when she won her Oscar) leaving us no wiggle room, no way to ignore Sophie's story. She then unveiled her depressing past, her memories of Auschwitz and her fateful “choice.” We see in flashbacks that Sophie was once married with children in Poland and her father was a Nazi supporter. She and her children were taken to Auschwitz for being Polish. There she was forced by a Nazi guard to choose between her two children, who lives and who dies.
My heart was pounding. My first thought was that Sophie's Choice is a great movie and that Streep's performance is unbelievable (she deserved the Oscar). But I remembered a low, awful feeling while watching. I remembered my boredom from watching the early scenes. And I remembered a specific manipulative lurid cut in the flashbacks. (We see Sophie and her two children on a train heading to Auschwitz. The camera zooms in on the two kids. They are trembling, clinging to their mother. Then cut to smoke shooting out of gas chambers.) I realized that the light-hearted early scenes are a device to lure us in or at least warm us up. Feeling we're on even ground, we welcome Sophie, Stingo and Nathan's problems and stories, unaware we've been made an easy knockout for stomach churning guilt and teary-eyed melodrama.

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