In The Roads Not Taken, a daughter tries to find her father amid his dementia, while her father tries to find his own reality amid the many possible paths his life could have taken. The film is an Odyssey narrative playing out over multiple timelines, and from the perspective of the women in this Odysseus’s story as well as his own. (GPG: 5/5)
Read our interview with director Sally Potter.
Review by Contributing Editor Giorgi Plys-Garzotto
One of the most poignant thematic statements stewing under the surface of The Roads Not Taken comes from the Odyssey. Most of us know the original story of the Odyssey, and for those who don’t, Leo (Javier Bardem) relates this ancient precursor to his own story for a young lady on a Greek island he visits–that is, he does this in one possible life out of the three shown in the film. To roughly quote, Leo is writing a book about “a man who is trying to find his way home, and faces many obstacles along the way.” He never mentions the Odyssey, or that it’s a bit ironic that he left his wife and child (in this timeline) to write his masterpiece only for it to be ultimately derivative of one of the oldest stories. I found that detail revealing because much of the film revolves around Leo’s ego and how it separates him from other people in his life. He is like the Greek hero in that he’s on a quest, but also in that he’s constantly leaving or neglecting his loved ones in favor of this quest.
On the other side of Odysseus’s masculine ego-quest, are the many women who make it possible. The many Penelopes, Circes, etc. in Leo’s timelines are constantly reminding the audience that they are the ones on whom Leo’s journeys depend. Leo is suffering from a kind of dementia, which means at the end of his life and the primary reality of his we experience he is literally unable to get along without help from women ike his daughter Molly (Elle Fanning) and his live-in caretaker. In one timeline, he has his wife Dolores (Salma Hayek) helping him get over his grief for the son they had together who died a year before at the time of the Day of the Dead celebration we watch them attend. In another, Leo has abandoned baby Molly and his wife Rita (Laura Linney) for a Greek island where he gets into a brief and unconsummated love affair with Anni (Milena Tscharntke), who he uses as a sounding board for his autobiographical novel. Any woman who has had a man talk to her about his novel understands how much labor that takes, and Anni does the least out of the many women who rely on Leo for support, love, or just his presence. He generally fails to be there for the women in his life, and in the end he is not really “there” at all in his own life.
In the end Leo’s dementia seems to be a reflection of the communication skills he shows over the rest of his lifetime. He is unwilling to reach out to others or tell them how he’s feeling, so he ends his life in many ways completely alone. However, there are small bits of connection that he finds with the people around him, in the primary timeline and his offshoots, that show that everyone has some kind of hope when it comes to setting things right. Leo’s relationship with Molly is the beating heart of the film, with Elle Fanning bringing love and light to interactions that would normally be grim. One scene where she changes his pants in a public bathroom and turns it into a game with him reminds the audience that family is about making the most horrible things in life a little less crushing.
Looking at other reviews after seeing it, most critics seem to feel the film is a bit opaque or unfocused, but I think it articulates what it wants to clearly and leaves much of the rest as questions or open-ended implications. The performances and direction brought out this incredibly human story and its more academic literary references, making it a marriage of intellect and emotion that I for one would recommend to anyone.
Does The Roads Not Taken pass the Bechdel Test?
No, because the women in the film are usually totally focused on Leo. When Molly and Dolores talk, they talk about how Leo is sick, and likewise for Molly and the housekeeper, etc.
Top Photo: Leo suffering from dementia.
Middle Photo: Salma Hayek as Leo’s first love.
Bottom Photo: Leo in another life.
Photo Credit: Adventure Pictures