Remember how I said I don't much like short stories? Well, I don't generally much like vignette-style films, either. In general, a short piece of a story isn't enough to get me involved in the characters and caring about what happens to them. But this film is the exception that proves the rule.
Written and directed by a man, Rodrigo Garcia (most notable for TV direction and cinematography, including Gia and several episodes of Six Feet Under and Carnivale), Nine Lives is nine short (10-15 minute) films, each done in a continuous shot. Each one centers around some element in the life of one women. There are some intersecting characters between the films, but their intersections are more incidental than important, and each piece stands on its own.
1. The first of the stories is about an inmate, Sandra, played by Elpidia Carrillo (Bread and Roses, Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her). She seems calm and collected until she is unable to talk to her visiting daughter due to a faulty phone; then she loses it. Later, in another vignette, we see her get arrested, but we never know what crime she has committed.
2. The second story is the one that seems to be getting the most press. In it, Robin Wright Penn's (White Oleander, Forrest Gump) Diana runs into an ex-lover, Damian (played by Jason Isaacs , who plays Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies but looks very different here), in a supermarket. Both of them are married, Diana is pregnant, and yet the tension between them is palpable and it is easy to see how they could fall back into their old relationship. The scene is incredibly well-played and Wright Penn shows off her acting chops with an understated performance that is hard to watch and easy to identify with.
3. The third tale is the most heart-wrenching. It is a scene between a woman, Holly (brilliantly portrayed by Lisa Gay Hamilton from The Practice) and her sister (a nice supporting turn by the very lovely Sydney Tamiaa Poitier--yep, daughter of that Sydney Poitier). Holly has returned to the house where she grew up, ostensibly to "make amends" with her abusive father, but rather than showing their conversation, the focus is on the discussion between Holly and her sister before her father's arrival. It's sparsely and painfully done, leaving detail to the viewer's imagination, and is carried perfectly by both good dialogue and the strength of Hamilton's acting.
4. The fourth vignette indirectly refers the viewer back to Diana's story, as it co-stars Damian, from the grocery store, and his wife, Lisa, played by Molly Parker (Iron Jawed Angels, Waking the Dead). They are in a new apartment, and are visited by Sonia, played by Holly Hunter (Thirteen, The Incredibles, O Brother Where Art Thou?) and her boyfriend, Martin (Stephen Dillane, seen before in The Hours and The Gathering). The focus of the story is the fucked-up relationship between Sonia and Martin. This was probably the least compelling of the vignettes for me, even though Holly Hunter was as fantastic as always.
5. Next, in the story that was the most moving of the film for me, we meet Samantha, played by Amanda Seyfried (Mean Girls, Veronica Mars). The power of this scene doesn't come from Seyfried, however, but from the brilliant Ian McShane (Deadwood, Sexy Beast), who plays her disabled father. The scene follows Samantha as she is pulled back and forth between her father, with whom she seems to have a good relationship, though he is obviously quite ill with what seems to be a degenerative disease of some sort, and her mother (played by Sissy Spacek), who comes off as cold and tired. We see how dedicated young Samantha is to her father, and how resentful the situation makes her mother, and how terrible the whole situation is. The best part, though, is the dark comedy in the banter between Samantha and her dad, and I attribute that both to good writing and to McShane's immense talent.
6. We next see Lorna, played by Amy Brennemann (Judging Amy, Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her), on her way to a funeral with her parents. As it turns out, the funeral is for the wife of Lorna's ex-husband, Andrew (William Fichtner, best known for his war movies, and recently seen in The Longest Yard). When Lorna and Andrew have sex at the funeral home, during the viewing of the body, it is unclear whether their affair has been ongoing or whether it has been sparked by the events underway, but the viewer is once again asked to think about relationships and whether or not they are ever really over.
7. The seventh vignette takes the viewer back to Samantha's story, but this time it centers around Sissy Spacek's (If These Walls Could Talk, In the Bedroom) character, Samantha's mother, Ruth. The scene takes place in a hotel, where Ruth seems to be about to embark on an affair with her daughter's school counselor, played by the unusually goofy Aidan Quinn (Legends of the Fall, Practical Magic). Though Ruth's behavior in this scene is less traditionally sympathetic than it was in her prior scene, where she was at home taking care of her family, I still felt more towards her character here, where you could see how very tired and starved for fun she is. The scene twists when Ruth witnesses another woman being arrested (Sandra from the first vignette), and it ends with her leaving the hotel without having consummated the affair.
8. The second-to-last scene is also quite moving. It is fairly straightforward, showing a conversation between Camille (played by Kathy Baker from Boston Public) and her husband, Richard (portrayed by a very well-cast Joe Mantegna from Joan of Arcadia). Camille is lying in a hospital bed, waiting to go into a masectomy. Scared, angry, and belligerent, Kathy Baker knocks the role of Camille out of the park, and the story leaves you both hopeful for how things will turn out for Camille and furious at hospital system that is treating her like a piece of meat when she's in this frightening position. Characters from other scenes show up here as well, with Holly as Camille's nurse and Lorna's mother as her anesthesiologist.
9. There has been some criticism of the film's final scene, but it was one of my favorites. It shows a visit to the cemetery by Maggie (the always incredible Glenn Close, whom I most recently enjoyed in last season's The Shield) and her daughter, Maria, played by Dakota Fanning (Man on Fire, War of the Worlds). While you watch the scene, it is unclear who the two are visiting, and the film's surprising final shot shows this vignette, too, to be about a woman-specific type of grief.
Each one of the nine scenes is beautifully shot, nearly perfectly acted, and tightly written and directed. Even the stories I cared less about (specifically Lorna) are extremely well-done, and those I cared more about are heart-wrenchingly beautiful. The actresses are all top tier, and the movie is blessedly free of oversexualization (with the single exception of an obnoxious focus on Amanda Seyfried's breasts in Samantha's story). Instead, it focuses on telling simple stories of women's lives, with humor, sadness, wistfulness, longing, and a subtle intelligence that is very difficult to find in contemporary movies. This is a film I will think about and remember for a long time to come, and I highly recommend it. I will certainly be on the lookout for Garcia's next offering.