Published May 01, 2005Palindromes is Todd Solondz's most difficult movie yet. It's a Little Red Riding Hood story that's as formally rigorous as a Godard film, and it's got a premise that makes you cringe a little just to speak it aloud. It's about a 12-year-old girl named Aviva who wants to get pregnant so that she'll have someone to love and who will love her back, but the dicey subtext to this is that she wants to have sex on her own terms rather than potentially being abused by a paedophile. Solondz, ever the provocateur and moral relativist, portrays Aviva's plight as if it halfway made sense.
As the film unfolds, Aviva is portrayed by about a dozen actresses, varying in age, colour and appearance (at one point it's Jennifer Jason Leigh). This may be a kind of sociological ploy (she's not just one particular girl, she's every girl), but it works more as a Brechtian device to undermine audience identification. Solondz is interested in taking prickly moral conundrums and abstracting from them he doesn't want his audience to lose perspective by emotionally identifying with one particular performance. He wants to create a world where even the most "black and white" situations can be seen from the reverse angle.
A palindrome can be read backwards or forwards (i.e., "Aviva"), and you can read every perspective in the movie the same way. Is Aviva a victim or is she using men's weaknesses to design her own destiny? Are the grinning, platitude-spouting Christians meant to be monsters (they execute a plan to kill an abortionist) or are they the last bastion of goodness and charity in the world? (They've taken in so many sick and crippled children that their home is a makeshift orphanage). Even a scene in which a relatively sane, well-adjusted character convincingly tells Aviva "I'm not a paedophile," she responds bitterly, "I know. I believe you. Because paedophiles love children."
If you leave this film still wrestling with ambiguous feelings about the story or subject matter, that's probably the desired effect. Solondz shows us characters doing horrifying things to themselves and to others and then he tries to get us to see why, in their subjective experience, they think it's the right thing to do. This movie is a fascinating ethical Rubik's cube, and it's laced with comedy, but it's a black comedy drenched in nihilism.
Palindromes begins with a funeral and ends with a moment of self-deluded hope, and in a movie where everything is turned on its ear, that hopeful declaration contains the seeds of disaster. (Extra Large)