Whether it’s making you feel like you’re gazing at the Chauvet caves in Southern France in Cave of Forgotten Dreams or making you aware of how small a boy is in a big, scary, Dickensian adult world in Hugo, 3D can be an essential tool for storytelling. Ever since Wim Wenders started using the technology, to great effect in his dance film Pina, he’s used it to tell stories where the story of space itself is integral. In Pina, he replicated the stage as close as possible on film, by putting the 3D behind the cinema screen. He gave us dance numbers in the three dimensions for which they were designed. Last year’s Cathedrals of Culture, his short about the Berlin Philharmonic, brought you into the building and made you very aware of the space: where the walls are, what the auditorium was like from different seats, and how the building felt.
With Every Thing Will Be Fine, Wenders has proved that using 3D need not be confined to documentary filmmaking, but that it can be absolutely vital to drama. As a story about a man, Tomas (James Franco), who frequently seems to be sleepwalking through his life, the juxtaposition with his three-dimensional surroundings, which are so alive and vivid, is powerful. As Tomas walks around without real purpose, we watch the the three-dimensional snow flakes falling, and we notice the spaces he inhabits. The first shot of the film is of his writer’s notebook that he’s struggling to fill, and its very three-dimensionality makes it feel important and his paralysis all the more palpable.
Through more fault of the screenplay by Bjørn Olaf Johannessen than Franco’s, Tomas rarely has any expression other than one of severity and seriousness. When we meet him, he’s having trouble connecting to his girlfriend Sara (Rachel McAdams with a tragic Québécois accent), from whom he’s about to split. As they sit on opposite sides of their dining room table, his inability to reach across and touch her hand feels like an inability to cross a giant chasm because it’s unfolding in three dimensions. The space between people in this film can feel like an un-crossable gulf.
Near the beginning of the film, Tomas gets into a driving accident on a country road, where he worries he may have accidentally killed a boy. When he finds a boy alive and well in front of his car, he decides to walk him home down the street. Their walk is slow and calm, and that short distance to the house feels long — enough time for them to bond. When he gets to the house and realises the boy’s brother is missing, he and the boy’s mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg) run back down the road at full speed. Because we’ve walked that road in three dimensions, our awareness of the distance, and just how quickly they’re traversing it this time, heightens the drama. It helps us understand the degree of the mother’s panic and the seriousness of the emergency.
That accident will haunt Tomas throughout the film, even as he tries to move on, finding a new girlfriend Ann (Marie-Josee Croze) and even a step-daughter Mina (Julia Sarah Stone), who is close in age to the boy he almost killed. Even as his domestic life seems to be becoming idyllic, he’s still unable to fully connect with his loved ones. Here, as before in the film, walls start to seem like barriers, and we’re aware of just how closed off he is because of the spaces he inhabits.
We spend time with Tomas in his station wagon, where Wenders makes us aware of exactly how small it is. When he ends up in the hospital and Sara comes to visit, and she closes the curtains around him to create a room, we feel how it’s a temporary makeshift space, which is what their relationship together has become. In Tomas’ beautiful house, Wenders pulls back to a wide shot to let us see Tomas in one room while Ann and Mina spend time together in the adjacent room. They’re in such separate spaces that we feel the emotional schism.
What Wenders does here is effectively turn the screen into a stage: that sense of well-defined space, of distances having meaning, is something inherent to live theatre. Here, Wenders creates that same immediacy and intimacy on film. It’s something that only a master of blocking could pull off — I’d have liked to see what Kurosawa could do with the technology. It’s literally a new dimension to explore and to emphasize spacial relationships.
It’s wasted on this script though, which takes itself far too seriously for the limited insight and obvious plot points it provides. Most problematic, though, is Tomas who is so dull it’s hard to care about his emotional problems let alone believe he’d be capable of penning a successful novel. He comes alive when with children — curious for a man who claims not to want them early in the film — but he’s standoffish and cold, occasionally inscrutable when among other adults. Wenders scores the film with such self-serious strings that they serve to undermine rather than underline the drama.