I saw this film on the day my new niece, Clara, was born, and it could not have been a better capstone to an already joyous day. Before seeing the film, I’d been thinking of the significance of this newborn life—that today was its first day, the first of many days and years and moments (by the grace of God) that will constitute her life. Like the many thousands of other babies born that day, she sucked in the earth’s air for the first time, just as, simultaneously, hundreds of other humans did it for the last time.
And so as I watched David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, I couldn’t help but reflect: what is life, indeed what is time, if not a series of entrances and exits and movements and moments? It all happens so quickly, and yet it is so vast.
This is a film about life. A life’s span. In this case, it’s about the life of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), a New Orleans-born-and-bred golden boy who was born on Armistice Day in 1918, worked on a tugboat, survived WWII, traveled the world, married his lifelong sweetheart, had a baby, and eventually died. He has your average “greatest generation” biography—except for the fact that he ages backwards. At birth he has the body and ailments of an 80 year old, and at age 80 he looks like your average toddler/infant. But this is not a film about a freak sideshow or a sci-fi anomaly. The aging-backward conceit is merely the entry point for a larger appraisal of life: the things we do, the nature of time, the impermanence of it all. “Nothing lasts,” says Benjamin repeatedly in the film. It’s not a statement of joy or mourning. Simply an acknowledgment of a fact.
Quite suitably, Button is structured episodically, running through Benjamin’s entire life from birth to death. We see him meet and befriend a diverse array of people who come in and out of his life, and very few of these encounters have any major “plot” significance apart from just being there, a part of this guy’s story. But that feels true. In real life, we all go through little periods here and segments there, loving someone in some place and another person somewhere else. Little is constant in life, save the fact that we are always the center of our own story.
For Benjamin, the closest thing to constancy is his childhood friend Daisy, a red-haired, blue-eyed dancer (Cate Blanchett) who, despite aging in the opposite direction, becomes Benjamin’s soul mate. Their love is the centerpiece of the film, and comprises much of its second half. As the two of them grow older in age, only Daisy begins to deteriorate. Benjamin loses his wrinkles and becomes more youthful by the day. For a time—a brief, glorious time—they are both about the same “age” physically. But “nothing lasts,” as they say.
The film is loosely based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, which I have read. Aside from the basic concept of a child being born old and aging backward, the film and story have very little in common. But I actually found the film to be very much in the F. Scott Fitzgerald mold—a very American, up-from-your-bootstraps tale of life and longing told with lyrical, elegant language and a bittersweet mix of warm nostalgia and quiet despair. That the object of Benjamin’s life-long love is “Daisy” is fitting, I think. It’s not that Benjamin has much in common with Gatsby, but certain elements and themes in Gatsby are also in Button. I think of this line—one of my favorites—from Gatsby:
“He stretched out his hand desperately as if to snatch only a wisp of air, to save a fragment of the spot that she had made lovely for him. But it was all going by too fast now for his blurred eyes and he knew that he had lost that part of it, the freshest and the best, forever.”
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is an exquisitely rendered, peculiar mediation on the fact that our lives—whether lived forward or backward—are lived in time. The freshest and best parts of them are only temporary. The fact that we age and time presses on—that things are lost and gained and never the same—is life’s only constant. (Incidentally, this is a theme also at play in David Fincher’s last film, Zodiac, which was one of the best films of 2007.)
This is a film that touched me deeply, bringing to the fore those sometimes dormant emotions and deeply rooted recognitions of life's impermanence that are at once heartbreaking and galvanizing.
It’s a perfect film for Christmas day, for even as it reminds us that humanity is bound by the shackles of time and aging, it also believes deeply in the sacredness of a life, however imperfect. We are all coming and going on this planet as quickly as the wind. We’ll be gone before we know it… But our lives still matter.