Nine Lives
directed by Rodrigo García
Magnolia Pictures

Rodrigo García, the son of the Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez, has been working his way out of his father’s shadow and up the Hollywood ladder. Over the past ten years, he has been a cameraman, cinematographer, participant in the Sundance film labs, television director (The Sopranos, Carnivàl, Six Feet Under), and auteur of three art films: Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her (2000), Ten Tiny Love Stories (2001), and Nine Lives (2005). García has a formula for getting his films made: unlike most struggling filmmakers with small budgets, he is able to attract first-rate actresses (and he unashamedly writes stories with particular stars in mind). He does not ask for large blocks of their time (the episodes of Nine Lives were each filmed in one take using a Steadicam—a camera mounted on the shoulders and chest of the cameraman); he does not insist on rehearsals; and he allows his actresses the freedom to create their own performances based on his scripts. Although his most recent film is far and away his best and the only one to make it into theaters, they all belong to the same unusual genre: collections of short meditations about women.

In Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her Holly Hunter turned her part into a virtuoso performance. She played Rebecca, a 39-year-old bank manager whose biological clock is winding down. She gets pregnant by the married man with whom she is having an affair; Gregory Hines, known primarily as a tap dancer, is unexpectedly right for this part. They decide she will have an abortion. This is only a vignette, but we sense strongly that this is the most unfortunate decision Rebecca will ever make—she will be alone and childless the rest of her life. We understand her predicament when she looks at a homeless woman in the street and sees herself. The peculiarly intense Holly Hunter, who has never found another part as suitable to her talent as Ada in The Piano, gave such a stunning performance in García’s film that she was marked for an Oscar nomination but lost her chance when the film was never distributed to theaters. Still, what Hunter achieved with García in that first film was a promise of what was to come in Nine Lives.

Before that success, though, came a failure—Ten Tiny Love Stories—that revealed García’s intense interest in women as an obsession. In this film, ten actresses look into the lens of a stationary camera and deliver monologues about their most intimate moments. The trailer crudely advertises the film as answering Freud’s frustrated question, what does a woman want? But in García’s film the women seem to be answering a slightly different and more prurient question: What does a woman really want from a man? The actresses describe memorable sexual experiences—the first time they had sex, the first time they had an orgasm during sex, their most unpleasant sexual experience. Each tries to recall in faithful detail her stream of consciousness during these experiences. Several are reminded of dreams, and all of them sound as though they were revealing themselves for the first time to the perfect psychoanalyst—a person in whom they had absolute trust.

For these women sex seems an invasion of the privacy of the self, and the film invites the audience to witness this violation. Although some of these confessions—and they are confessions—appall us, the real shock comes when the monologues are finished and “written and directed by Rodrigo García” rolls across the screen. It gives everything we have watched a perverse spin: these women have been giving voice to a man’s obsessive imaginings. Let me hasten to add that none of these imaginings are answers to Freud’s question. García’s actresses describe sexual experiences that turned them on or turned them off, but most of what they confess is banal and sad.

There seems to be something inherent to the literary turn to stream of consciousness that makes a person appear totally alone. Think of the isolation in Molly Bloom’s ecstasy of yeses, or in Mrs. Dalloway’s entire day. The more faithful the writer is to the stream of consciousness, the more alone in the world the character seems. And in real life the mystery of other minds is deepest when one plunges into one’s own stream of consciousness. Certainly García’s ten women seem alone as they describe the most intimate human encounters as alienating. The woman who talks about her first orgasm during intercourse describes it as an experience you wouldn’t want to have in front of another person. Perhaps García realized that in forcing his characters to expose themselves so starkly, he was being cruel to his actresses; there is an almost apologetic (and bizarre) coda to this film in which each is identified and shown wreathed in smiles.

In Nine Lives García’s art transcends his obsession. He seems to have crawled inside the skins of his characters, an effort that has earned him critical—if not box-office—success. Nine Lives is about contemporary women in moments of desperation—realizing, like Rebecca, the consequences of the decisions that changed their lives for the worse. They are not simply passive victims of a patriarchal world. They are truly tragic characters who have the autonomy to make decisions and who must live with their consequences.

In the second story of Nine Lives, García’s Steadicam catches the head and upper body of a 30-something woman (Robin Wright Penn) in whose unmade-up face we can see the ground-down remnants of youthful beauty. She has apparently gone to the grocery store to pick up a few things, and the camera follows casually her up and down the aisles. Suddenly alarm transforms her boredom. She tries to hide in one of the aisles and then appears trapped. What we discover as the scene unfolds is that she has encountered the love of her life, the man she chose not to marry. The man (Jason Isaacs) seems to be everything a woman would want: handsome, good-natured, unpretentious, and altogether charming as he helps her overcome her unease at their unexpected meeting. They recall old times and report that they are both now married to other people. Then the camera lets us see for the first time that the woman is pregnant and that there will be no turning back to what in that moment she fully realizes she has lost. She asks if he has any children, and with a candor that is pure and kind he explains that he is sterile. As they part he kisses her fondly on the cheek and then worshipfully on her pregnant belly. When his back is turned she collapses into tears. We know that she chose not to marry the love of her life, and if she had, he could never have been the father of her child.

There is a sense in this story, as in all of the nine of them, that García will show us how these women shaped the trajectory of their lives and then became prisoners of them. In fact, the first story is actually filmed in a Los Angeles women’s prison (all of Nine Lives is set in Los Angeles). Without any explanatory narrative we see a Hispanic prisoner swabbing the floor with striking intensity. Sandra (Elpidia Carrillo) is determined to be a model prisoner so she will get time off for good behavior to be with the daughter she loves. She knows that the first time she ended up in prison it was a mistake, but now she seems to have a measure of autonomy. On visiting day she is meant to talk with her daughter, but the telephone does not work; she goes into a rage that will nullify all her work. The prison may be a metaphor for the lives depicted in the stories that follow, but García’s stories are more complicated than one first realizes.

García expects a lot from his audience—some would say too much. They must find in the present-centered dialogue the implications of the transformative events of the past. This is most apparent in his story of Holly (Lisa Gay Hamilton). Hamilton is an African-American actress whose original ambition was to do Shakespeare but who, when racial casting closed those doors, became known for her role on the television legal drama The Practice. She is small and intense and yet on the screen larger than life. As her Holly unexpectedly returns to the home she grew up in, she compels her sister to summon their father back from work. The audience is never explicitly told, but we have to guess that this is the father who sexually abused her as a child—she has decided to confront him. When he appears she takes a revolver from her bag, points it at him, then at her own head, then places the barrel in her mouth. It is a kind of sign language for her hatred, her self-loathing, and the traumas of the past. We think we understand the events that have disastrously shaped the trajectory of her ruined life. And that is where García leaves us and this story. Where, one might ask, is the evidence of this woman’s autonomy? She is the quintessential victim. But Holly turns up in a subsequent story as an unflappable and compassionate nurse prepping an angry, impolite woman for breast-cancer surgery. García gives us a hint here that his women are not inevitably trapped in the trajectory of their lives. He does this cautiously—almost diffidently.

Nine Lives invites comparison to Robert Altman Short Cuts. Also set in Los Angeles, and based on Raymond Carver’s short stories, it was also a critical success. But while the short-story format has become a safe formula for García, Altman ambitiously wove the stories together into a complex narrative that is more than the sum of its parts—an ironic portrayal of Los Angeles as la-la land. Even though Carver purists deplored the film, particularly for its lack of empathy for its female characters, Altman’s women endure in afterthought because he has given them a significance beyond the pathos of their individual lives. The empathy García conveys for his women is a great achievement; if he can combine it with Altman’s ambition he may indeed escape from the lengthening shadow of his father’s genius.