Spell It Out

The film version of Bee Season overplays its hand

Nov 23, 2005 at 4:00 am
Richard Gere? That's the first thought that came to mind upon learning that Mr. Salt-and-Pepper-Sexy-Buddhist-WASP had been cast as Saul Naumann in Bee Season, the film version of Myla Goldberg's best-selling novel. In the book, Saul is an oppressive and learned Jewish patriarch, a cantor and student of mysticism whose text-strewn home office is off-limits except by invitation. Saul is the type who is so busy seeking a relationship with God through ancient Jewish mysticism — that is, through numerology, the permutation of letters in a given word, meditative attempts to gain a direct route to God's ear and so on — that he forgets to notice the souls of his own children. Richard Gere?

Equally mystifying is the role of Saul's wife Miriam, played by Juliette Binoche, whom screenwriter Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal (mother to Maggie and Jake) must not have been able to believe as Jewish either. Here, Miriam is French-Catholic, apparently attracted to Saul because of his connection to Kabbalah. She loves its mystery.

Indeed, Gere is no cantor — or even a religious studies professor, which is how the film employs him. (And must he wear such tight jeans?) This and other changes make Bee Season far less Jewish than the novel, which is a strain; spirituality is summarily reduced to a series of shallow metaphors. But the real problem is that, despite some rather nuanced emotional complexity in the relationships among its characters, Bee Season cannot control its desire to overplay every single one of those metaphors. In other words, get ready for tikkun olam.

Sixth-grader Eliza Naumann (newcomer Flora Cross) lives with her parents and favored older brother Aaron (Max Minghella) in a beautiful brown-shingled home in the Oakland hills. With its burnished wood walls, the home is meant to stand for both solidity and gravity: Here is a serious family, well-established, engaged in noble pursuits. But that image unravels soon enough, when we see that Saul shares a bond with Aaron that doesn't admit Eliza, and that Miriam, apparently employed in the sciences, is driven to distraction by personal demons.

Family dynamics begin to shift when Eliza, a shy girl who understands her place as both the second child and the second sex, reveals a talent for spelling. Once Saul gets wind of her gift, he takes her into his office for lessons, brushing aside Aaron and his violin. Part of what's so interesting about the book (and, unfortunately, not in the film, since its treatment is so summary) is that Saul uses Kabbalah to teach spelling: First he shows Eliza how to reach into the history of a word, its etymology, and sense its letters, and later he turns to increasingly esoteric forms of meditation to help her divine orthography. As these lessons progress, so does Eliza, winning the regional and state bees and heading for the nationals in Washington.

A central image in Jewish mysticism is one of a broken world, a series of vessels shattered into shards. The idea of "tikkun olam," or repairing the world, is that humans can remake the world, piecing it back together. Saul is obsessed with this concept, and so is the movie: While we see him breaking apart his family by promoting one child over another and empty achievement over real connection with people or God, he believes that he's on a mending path, and he speaks of little else. Meanwhile, directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel milk this image to within an inch of its life. There are constant visual references, including a kaleidoscope and a pair of shattered eyeglasses that get some sort of play in nearly every scene. Worse, the directors constantly refer one thing to another; if a character speaks of shards, we get a shot of the eyeglasses, and so on.

This is inelegant storytelling, and it almost entirely cancels out what's good about the film: Max Minghella, for one thing. The son of director Anthony, he gives a very fresh performance, popping with energy that the other characters seem to drain. It's also worth noting that at least in one way, Bee Season the film is more emotionally complex than its source. Gyllenhaal has toned down Saul's anger and hypocrisy, and while the result is a loss of dramatic power, there's something a little more meaty about a deeply flawed man who is nevertheless sympathetic.

On the other hand, there is that loss of power. Unlike the book, the film is much less about Eliza and much more about the family, and that diffuses its energy. Eliza's perspective, and her desperate quest to please and connect with either parent, is the beating heart of the novel. Here that quest is all but hidden behind her pale and silent face. This shift creates additional problems, such as an ending that has been transposed to mean its opposite. Whereas once Eliza made a definitive step away from her parents and into herself, now she makes a gesture that seems to rescue her utterly unrescueable family. Healing the world? Hardly.