The opening shot of ‘Bee Season’ pays homage to “La Dolce Vita,” as pre-teen spelling bee champ Eliza regards a helicopter in the California sky from which dangles not a statue of Christ but a huge “E” being carried to its context in a sign. The image is fitting for a film in which the central character considers words to be holy vessels. This is Eliza’s dad, Saul Naumann (Richard Gere), a prominent professor of the philosophy of religion, who lectures on the concept of “Tikkun Olan,” in Jewish teaching the idea that it’s our duty to make a broken world whole; to fix and heal what’s been shattered.
Saul has a special interest in esoteric knowledge, the ultimate goal of which is to see God. He begins to believe that Eliza (Flora Cross) has the potential to reach this realm as she wins bees almost unconsciously; he hopes to coach her to tap into her gift’s wellspring, i.e. God. During the bees this primarily realist film bursts into expressionism as Eliza “sees” the words: when asked to spell “origami,” she sees an origami swan flitting about. Because she is a winner, Saul lavishes attention on Eliza, while all but ignoring his teenage son, Aaron (Max Minghella), until the boy is driven into the arms of the Hare Krishnas. Rather hypocritically, dad looks askance upon the boy’s spiritual quest. Although this is the first time in a film I’ve seen teen rebellion manifest as flowing orange Krishna robes, I’m sorry to report that this subplot leads to one of those tired scenes of outburst to the effect that Aaron can’t stick Saul at any price.
Another subplot centers on the increasingly erratic behavior of Saul’s wife Miriam, played by the consummate French actress Juliet Binoche as a sad-eyed woman whose mental illness she’s managed to keep secret. Her world was torn apart as a little girl in the instant of a car accident.
Gere is well-cast as the prosperous, Boomer-generation professor, whose idea of sound parenting, when his attention turns that way, is to provide a lively intellectual environment. He wants to turn his kids on to some deep concepts, e.g. the mysticism of the Kabbalah. Though good-humored, he does expect them to rise to such challenges. We see that it can be quite a burden to be the offspring of an inspiring public intellectual, which is reflected in Eliza’s grave aspect as she is shouldered with the quest to reach God. The concluding scene at the bee championship will provoke discussion; to me it shows that Eliza had to show Saul that winning isn’t what it’s about. I was moved by the cut to Miriam watching on television: she utters a few simple words which were foreshadowed earlier by a chance acquaintance’s comment to Eliza that no mother needs her child to win anything.
“Bee Season” is a treat for word lovers. It’s also a remarkable orchestration of sound and image. Co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel have found a beautiful visual metonymy for the theme of the world as a splintered place: kaleidoscope shards, a shattered windshield, crystals, petri dishes glimpsed through a microscope. At film’s end we feel that healing is about to begin, however it made me eager to read the novel by Myla Goldberg on which it’s based in that this particular piece may require more of a window into its characters’ inner lives than film can ordinarily provide.
- Nov 25, 2005