There's no getting around the fact that you either like the films of Todd Solondz, or you really, really don't. In Happiness, which may be the most depressing film ever made, and in Storytelling, a triptych of tales about fact and fiction, Solondz asks us to follow along as he examines, exposes, dissects and reorganizes the world as he knows it.
Luis Buñuel, the great Spanish surrealist filmmaker, did pretty much the same thing. So it's fitting that Solondz, in his new film, Palindromes, pulls something on us that Buñuel did in his final film, That Obscure Object of Desire, wherein two different actresses tag-teamed the leading role, with no explanation of why.
In casting eight people, including 43-year-old Jennifer Jason Leigh, as Aviva, his 13-year-old protagonist in Palindromes, Solondz spares us some Buñuelian vertigo by not switching back and forth between them: Once an actress -- or in one case, an androgynous lad in a girl's halter top -- gives up the role of Aviva, she doesn't return, until several of them show up again for a coda that neither clarifies nor confuses things any further. It takes only a few presto-changos to figure out what's happening, even though there's no consistency to the casting, except that each Aviva is lonely, adrift and deeply depressed.
Solondz introduces us to Aviva in a most provocative way: She's a little black girl who tells her mother (Ellen Barkin, who's white) that she wants to have lots and lots of babies because "that way, I'll always have someone to love." This is Solondz's first awful truth among many in Palindromes, and in the discomfort of the moment, he's telling us exactly why, in a capricious world of immutable human suffering, children (black or white) have children.
Aviva's desire to procreate comes up because her cousin Dawn has just died, and we've all just attended her funeral. Dawn's father eulogized her as a determined child who kept playing the piano, even though people "told her again and again that she had no real talent." (Truth Alert: This is how parents demoralize their children.) Aviva's mother tries to comfort her, but in her next incarnation (she's white and brunette now), Aviva watches a porno video impassively with Judah, a pudgy boy her own age, and then the two have silent, lightning-fast sex (thank to Judah's all-but-premature ejaculation).
Next, Aviva is a pregnant redhead who wants to keep her baby, until her mother forces her into an abortion with a sob story about her own good decision to have one -- Truth Alert: Parents manipulate their children to get what they want from them. So Aviva runs away (she's brunette again), comes upon a bucolic Christian salvage mission (now she's black and obese) run by Mama Sunshine, a made-for-700-Club woman who has a "family" of special-needs kids: a hearing-impaired dwarf of color, a blind albino, an epileptic, an armless girl -- your Truth Meter should be going off the charts right about now.
The Mama Sunshine passage is so long that two Avivas play the role, and while it might seem like just a smug liberal parody of all-smiles-all-the-time Jesus-mania, it's much more complex and compelling than that. Solondz skewers the way our wider culture objectifies and sentimentalizes these damaged kids, and his closing titles roll over an insipid Christian pop tune about difference and acceptance. But scoff all you want at a religious nut job like Mama Sunshine: She does take care of them, something none of his other good suburban middle-class characters would do.
As bizarre as this all sounds, Solondz doesn't trade in camp, or if he does, he's either not very good at it or he's simply too depressed to take it all the way. Palindromes is a beyond-black comedy with a few quick laughs, a few more sick jokes, and then scene after scene that all together leave you groping to comprehend.
Solondz's mannered dialogue is sometimes thematically obvious to the point of banality. "Have you ever been in love?" Aviva asks a middle-aged man. "What do you mean?" he replies, his pathos almost too desperate to believe. After a devoutly religious man kills someone, he punches the wall and wails, "How many times can I be born again?" When a neighbor tells Aviva that he hates everything about the stinking world and that he's not a pedophile like everyone says, she reassures him: "I know. Pedophiles love children."
Like Buñuel, Solondz is no visual stylist: He photographs Palindromes with relentless inelegance, and he paces it so deliberately that you can almost imagine him wandering away from his director's chair, lost in his own despair. His actors meander, malinger, overplay, or sometimes come off like eager amateurs (clearly the effect he wants). And yet, his movie brims with tension. Everything in Palindromes is at once bizarre and routine, and we watch it all as if from behind a bird blind, like naturalists observing the rituals of a fascinating lower species.
Solondz's work begs us to join him in absolute confusion about the state of human being. Are we good or bad? Does love exist? Does happiness and joy? Can any one of us ever truly change? Can anyone trust anyone? Can we make sense of life without believing in God? Can we believe in God in the face of such senselessness? And these are only the most obvious questions suggested by his strange and recondite movie.