Despite having liked the previous directorial collaboration of Scott McGehee and David Siegel, The Deep End, I did not hold out much hope for Bee Season. Nothing that I’d read about the film really connected with me. In fact, the most encouraging thing about it lay in the number of bad reviews it had garnered from people with whom I’m rarely in agreement. All of them seemed to find it an incomprehensible muddle, which triggered my curiosity in some perverse manner.
So I was more than delighted to find myself confronted with a truly challenging, unique film that dared to presume to make the viewer think about what was going on. That’s rare enough in movies, which are all too often a purely passive experience. Rarer still, however, to find a film that deals with complex ideas and concepts without spoon-feeding its audience. Bee Season does both these things, does them brilliantly, and actually contains its own conclusions, though it chooses not to spell them out. Notice I use the word “conclusions” and not “answers.” This film is too smart to think in terms of answers to questions that have been pondered for as long as mankind has concerned itself with thoughts beyond the origin of its next meal.
The story line is dressed up as a dysfunctional family drama — and there’s no denying that this is one dysfunctional family; however, the point of the film is far greater than domestic drama. It might be more properly said that Bee Season finds something new in such drama. The story concerns Saul Naumann (Richard Gere), a hardcore intellectual with a mystical streak who teaches religion at a university. He has a detached view of the topic of religion and the search for God — something that is obviously not manifest in the way the world at large approaches these things. What is myth or allegory to him might be an emotional reality to someone else — and this he seems incapable of grasping. Similarly, he seems incapable of grasping that he’s not immune to a less rational belief that the big answers to the big questions are out there.
Saul is also detached from his family — his obviously troubled wife, Miriam (Juliette Binoche); his whiz-kid son, Aaron (newcomer Max Minghella, the real-life son of director Anthony Minghella); and his underachiever daughter, Eliza (newcomer Flora Cross). It’s obvious that in his own mind, Saul thinks he is connected with these people; it’s equally obvious that his connection to them is more on his terms than theirs.
All of this stems from Saul’s own — not fully understood — belief in the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, which has it that we all have a personal responsibility to heal or repair the world that was shattered because the vessel in which God placed everything couldn’t contain it. In Saul’s abstract view, this is along the lines of restoring that which has been damaged or harmed in more or less simple ways — the mystical equivalent of leaving the earth a better place than it was when you entered it. It never occurs to him that anyone might take the concept more literally — but then it never occurs to him that someone whose world is supremely damaged would feel the pull of the idea in any but an intellectual manner.
None of this is directly stated in the film. Indeed, this is only part of the plot — but it, along with the idea of a search for something higher outside ourselves, infuses all of
As a story, Bee Season seems to be about a father who finally starts paying attention to his daughter when she shows a mystical connection to words in her success at spelling bees. Indeed, he thinks she may be capable of that which he isn’t — understanding the cabalist way of thinking, unlocking the “secret meaning” of scripture and reaching the “ear of God.” And the film is savvy enough to admit this possibility without going overboard.
But Saul’s newfound focus on Eliza causes him to lose what connection he has with the rest of the family. Son Aaron starts seeking the answers on his own and on a different path, while Saul’s rapidly disintegrating wife travels deeper and deeper into a private world on yet another path. The trick is that all these paths are supposed to end in enlightenment. Bee Season, in fact, never suggests that they don’t (or at least that they don’t hold that potential), but the film’s aims are different.
Is the Big Answer the key to everything? Is the Big Success (in this case, the national spelling bee championship) an answer? Without giving too much of the film away, it’s safe to say that it’s the least likely person who arrives at any kind of conclusion — the one who gets right to the point of the Big Answer — realizing that true worth and enlightenment is derived from human interaction. This is the thrust of the movie’s theme, and rarely has it been expressed more eloquently or simply.
Make no mistake, this is a strange film — one that isn’t afraid of going wherever it needs to in order to make its points, which seems to trouble some viewers and critics. But Bee Season is very worth “going with” for both the things it has to say and the bold ways in which it says them. It may be the most remarkable new film I’ve seen this year. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, a scene of sensuality and brief strong language.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke