‘Bride Flight’ Rocked By Turbulence

With too many competing storylines, film is weighed down by excess baggage

06/07/2011
Special to the Jewish Week
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In the 1940s and '50s, the family melodrama was one of Hollywood's most successful genres. In the hands of great filmmakers like Douglas Sirk, Vincente Minnelli and John M. Stahl, the so-called "weepie" became a vehicle for incisive and insightful examinations of the role of women in American society, the psychodynamics of the family, the class tensions that were carried to the suburbs, and the nature of sexual desire. Of course, few recognized the importance of those films at the time, other than the producers and studio heads depositing big fat checks as a result of the seats the films filled. And at some point, American filmmakers forgot how to make those films.

The heart of the family melodrama was best summed up by a clever phrase from the brilliant film scholar Thomas Elsaesser, who characterized the genre as "where Freud left his Marx on the American home." In an era in which the home was threatened by everything from the A-bomb to juvenile delinquency and television, the sense of its fragility was the key motivation for these films. But how would you handle a family melodrama about people who have been uprooted, for whom home is evanescent?

That is the interesting task that Dutch filmmaker Ben Sombogaart has set for himself in his new film "Bride Flight," which opens June 10.

Inspired by a real event from postwar Dutch history, Sombogaart and screenwriter Marieke van der Pol have looked back to 1953 when an air race featuring a planeload of young people fleeing the drab and still-devastated Netherlands for the new frontier of New Zealand briefly captured the imaginations of the public in both nations. Since many of the immigrants were flying to the Pacific either to meet or to seek husbands, it was known as the Bride Flight, giving the film its rather ambiguous title.

On the flight itself, we meet the film's four principal characters: Frank (Waldemar Torenstra), a handsome young daredevil; Marjorie (Elise Schaap), a bubbly social climber meeting her fiancé in Christchurch; Ada, who seems smitten with Frank; and Esther, a vivacious young Jewish woman who wants to be a couturier. Needless to say, at the outset, each harbors a secret except for Marjorie, who seems too shallow to have anything to hide. (Of course, when the time comes, it is the secret she acquires that will threaten the stability of all.) Frank saw his family killed in a Japanese prison camp in Indonesia; Esther has lost her entire family in the Shoah; and Ada is marrying a boy she barely knows because she is pregnant.

This is an old-fashioned triple-decker narrative line in which the trick is to keep all the stories moving forward at approximately the same speeds so that when the seemingly parallel lines cross it all makes sense, not only in terms of plot but also in terms of rhythm, tone and mood. That, unfortunately, is where "Bride Flight" stumbles most egregiously. Sombogaart keeps all three major story lines moving at the same lugubrious and unvarying pace, each plodding forward in weary lockstep with the others. As a result the film, which is 130 minutes long, feels endless and tedious.

The irony is that Sombogaart actually handles the issue of how to establish emotional continuity in a world in which everyone is a newcomer and a stranger rather cleverly. The weight of the narrative, which probably should rest on Frank, since he is very much the common point at which the three women converge, actually devolves on Esther. It is the pain of her loss of family and her deeply ambivalent feelings about her Jewish identity on which the film's biggest plot development hinges, and Sombogaart creates the emotional resonance to make it work (to the extent that anything in the film works) by the use of a single object, a Chanukah menorah, inherently freighted with meaning of its own, but subtly inserted in the background of every scene set in one of Esther's various homes. It will eventually become the symbol of another tug-of-war, as fraught as her decision to forfeit her roots as a Jew, insisting, "I will have a good and safe life."

That contradiction - a Jew who yearns to live without fear and chooses to renounce her identity, yet clings to, and passes on the very object that forces her to remember - could have been the subject of an interesting film. In the larger, mopey context of "Bride Flight," with its brief look-in at issues of domestic violence, mysterious paternity, faltering marriages and even a faint reference to the struggles of New Zealand's indigenous population, dragged out over 50 years and two hours, it almost gets lost. It's not that the film should have been about the Jews, but it should have been about something, not everything.

"Bride Flight" wants to be a throwback, an example of a kind of narrative that you don't see in the movies much these days. But without the verve, passion, precision and economy that mark the classic Hollywood family melodramas, the end product tastes stale.

"Bride Flight," directed by Ben Sombogaart, opens Friday, June 10 at the Paris Theatre (4 W. 58th St., just off Fifth Avenue). For information, call (212) 688-3800 or visit www.theparistheatre.com.

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