Bee Season (2005): Siegel and McGehee’s Family Drama Starring Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche

 

Despite big budget and name cast (Richard Gere, Juliette Binoche), “Bee Season,” David Siegel and Scott McGehee’s third film, is their weakest work to date.

“Bee Season” follows two superlative films, the stunning debut “Suture” (1994) and the acclaimed noir melodrama, “The Deep End” (2001).

It’s the first film that the co-directors have not written, and the tension between their intellectual, ironic style and Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal’s writing tendencies and middlebrow sensibility is evident throughout. As she showed in “Running on Empty” and “Losing Isaiah,” Gyllenhaal is attracted to intriguing and timely family subjects, but she tends to dilute edgy material, turning interesting stories into diffuse and incoherent ones.

The main problem of “Bee Season” is that it’s structured and written in such a way that it’s impossible to get involved in the story intellectually or emotionally, which is crucial for a yarn about a family coming apart, in need for redemption of its individual members and new unity for the group as a whole.

Not having read Myla Goldberg’s 2000 bestseller novel or the shooting screenplay, I assume the faults are in the structure of the narrative, which centers on an 11-year-old spelling whiz, who delves into mystical territory to some unexpectedly shattering results for her family.

The scripter has made at least two changes from the book. First, the father’s profession is shifted from a temple cantor to a college professor. And second, she moved the story from its suburban Pennsylvania locale to an idyllic Northern California college town like Berkeley.

Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche Miscast

There are casting problems, too. An actor of limited range, Richard Gere is miscast as a Jewish biblical scholar. It’s also hard to justify the casting of Juliette Binoche as a Jewish mom, and the fact that her acting style is vastly different from Gere’s makes them an unlikely couple even in the early chapters, when harmony is supposed to prevail in the Naumann clan.

Finally, recent works on the phenomenon of spelling will work against this film, too, since there’s no novelty anymore. Spelling bees have evolved into a popular competitive event, with the annual National Spelling Bee now regularly airing on ESPN. Many people have seen the award-winning documentary, “Spellbound,” and there’s been a hit Broadway play, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,’ which won two Tony Awards.

Saul Naumann (Gere) is a professor of religious studies at Berkeley, with special interest in the mysticism of the Kabbalah. On the surface, Saul seems to be a benevolent patriarch, imparting knowledge, cooking dinner regularly, playing violin-and-cello duets with his gifted son Aaron (Max Minghella, son of the director Anthony). He’s also highly supportive of his wife Miriam (Binoche), a career scientist.

When his daughter Eliza (terrific newcomer Flora Cross), an otherwise ordinary girl, first exhibits her special talents, Saul takes her under his wing and relates to her the ancient belief that all the secrets of the universe are contained in letters. Saul deconstructs the alphabet in a way that actually increases Eliza’s capacity for spelling. After a giant silver letter “A” is transported by helicopter over San Francisco, letters keep appearing in mysterious circumstances, enabling Eliza to “see” the proper spelling of the most obscure words.

Eliza’s remarkably fast progress in spelling bees from the local level to the national finals throws off balance the Naumann’s family, which at first appears to be an accomplished and harmonious one. In essence, “Bee Season” explores a typical Hitchcockian situation (in “Shadow of a Doubt,” “The Birds,” and others), offering a kaleidoscopic portrait of a modern American family whose picture-perfect surface conceals an underlying world of secret turmoils and tensions.

Parents are not expected to favor one child over another, but Saul does. First he favors Aaron, but when he realizes the extent of Eliza’s talent, he channels all his energy into helping her, neglecting both Miriam and Aaron. Saul becomes so obsessed with Eliza’s victories that he begins to live vicariously through her path to God.

As a result, Aaron and Miriam go their own ways in secretive and dramatic fashions. Miriam finds Eliza’s and Saul’s shared focus a painful reminder of the connection she once had with her husband and her own parents, who died tragically when she was a young girl. The subplot played out by Miriam, who takes to disappearing in the evening for unknown reasons, is frustrating and distracting, even though the film tries to link her predicament to the Kabbalah theme favored by Saul about how things that are shattered can be made whole again (in Hebrew, “Tikkun Olam”), a metaphor furthered by the revelation of Miriam’s clandestine activities.

Meanwhile, Aaron, once the favorite child, rebels against his father’s withdrawal of affection and begins to experiment with other religions, eventually seeking out a connection with a beautiful Hare Krishna (Kate Bosworth, playing a character that was not in the book).

“Bee Season” is at its best when it reveals four individuals on disparateand often desperatepaths toward their own notion of transcendence, quests that lead them to pursue intense and even dangerous spiritual experiences.

The film’s least convincing aspect is Eliza’s determination, facing her family’s disintegration, to engage in an unexpected act of selflessness to put the broken pieces of her family back together. Through the glare of approbation that her anomalous spelling genius has brought her, Eliza discerns that it’s up to her to restore what has been shattered.

Eliza accomplishes this feat through an act that can be interpreted either as a reclaiming of her self and a tacit rejection of God’s voice, or, alternately, as a selfless channeling of God’s profound love. At this point, however, the film’s mysticism and psychology get muddled, and we viewers have lost interest in the Naumann family, and don’t believe that they should stick together.

McGehee’s and Siegel’s former films centered on one main character and a single point of view, such as Tilda Swinton’s distressed mother in “The Deep End.” But “Bee Season” is an ensemble-driven, far more complex tale that calls for stronger characterization and a subtler display of multiple points of view. It’s indicative of the screenplay, and perhaps direction too, that increasingly, as the story unfolds, it’s hard to locate the dramatic center, since the focus keeps shifting, though not in an interesting or involving way.

Adopting the format of psychological noir thrillers, both “Suture” and “The Deep End” were provocative intellectual works, directed with the right balance of ironic detachment and emotional involvement. In “Bee Season,” this balance is absent and the uneven directorial treatment makes the film’s structural, dramatic, and acting problems all the more noticeable.

Critics often complain that American movies are poor in ideas and subtexts, but “Bee Season” seems to suffer from the opposite problem, featuring too many issues for an in-depth exploration. Among other things, “Bee Season” wants to comment on the power of language, the elusiveness of communication, the subtleties of parents-children relationships, the terrifying specter of family breakdown, the inchoate and consuming desires that plague adults, and the children’s clear-eyed ability to see their parents’ acts of desperation for what they are.

Most actors bring with them baggage based on previous roles they have played. Watching Binoche in this mystical tale recalls her melancholy role in Kieslowski’s “Blue,” the first segment of his three color trilogy (the others were “White” and “Red”), in which she also played a woman haunted by past tragedies.

Probably miscast, Gere plays the professor in a confident, nonchalant manner, never getting deep enough into the soul and mind of an obsessive parent whose peculiar pursuits endanger his entire family.

Neither Gere nor Binoche illuminate “Bee Season” as a truly dark, serious and scary story about how parents, despite their best intentions, can become so attached to their children’s successes and their dreams, that they lose sight of their kids’ mental welfare as well as their own.