Silver Linings Playbook: Romance by Stealth

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Silver Linings Playbook was given a gradual, staggered release in North America. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival early last September; featured at a number of smaller, independent film festivals throughout the United States across October and early November; received a limited release in cinemas in the middle of November; and was finally afforded a wide release towards the end of the following month. Its relatively slow emergence, accompanied by increasing critical acclaim, was timely with regard to the awards season; David O. Russell, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro all won awards and received numerous nominations, the film’s successes culminating with Jennifer Lawrence winning Best Actress at the 85th Academy Awards ceremony on February 24.

The film’s steady progression across North America has been mirrored by its release pattern in Europe. Silver Linings Playbook appeared in the UK in late November, in Germany at the beginning of January and in France at the end of the month, and has only received a wide release in the Netherlands over the last couple of weeks. I went to see the picture at the Tuschinski theatre – in the balconied ‘Great Hall’ of the wonderful building, a conflux of Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and several other architectural schools and cultural motifs – last weekend.

Whilst Jennifer Lawrence has perhaps received the most acclaim for her performance in the film as Tiffany, it is notable the way in which the film’s structure allows her to stand out. Bradley Cooper’s Pat (or Pat Jr.) bears the attributes of the film’s lead character – it is he who we are first introduced to, and it is he who we follow, who we focalise through, whose thoughts and emotions are most discernible and impressed. Where both he and Tiffany have suffered mental health issues relating to their previous relationships – Pat discovered his wife cheating on him and responded by beating her partner in adultery; Tiffany’s husband died in a car accident – it is Pat’s illness which we most inhabit, shown the incident at its core by way of flashback, and witnessing its recurring pattern in those moments where Pat loses control, becoming agitated in particular whenever he hears the song intertwined with the incident, which has become for him a trigger for distress.

JENNIFER LAWRENCE stars in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

As well as focalising through Pat, it is his life, his world, which is positioned at the film’s centre. Pat and Tiffany are its two poles, but the film possesses an excellent ensemble cast, which is comprised overwhelmingly of Pat’s circle of family and friends: his mother, Dolores; his father, Pat Sr.; his brother Jake; his doctor, Dr. Cliff Patel; and his two closest friends, one of whom he met at the mental health facility in which he spent eight months, the other an old friend from the exterior world. Thus Tiffany is in all manners an outsider: not part of Pat’s family; on the outskirts of his group of friends; living at a physical remove from her own parents, in a garage she has converted which is separate from the family home; and her promiscuity in the aftermath of her husband’s death has made her also an outcast, a sort of black sheep, in the bearings of wider society. Her power is rooted in this, in this relative darkness and isolation: despite some of the subject matter (mental illness, loneliness, a risky and potentially addictive gambling habit), this is not a dark film, but Tiffany is illuminated because she is something relatively marginalised and dangerous, seemingly offering Pat a course which is unconventional and unsafe.

Silver Linings Playbook is a film that works by hiding events and emotions off-screen, and then leaving them unsaid but implied by what is later uncovered. The film reaches its climax in a dance competition, in which Pat and Tiffany dance together. In culminating in dance, a point of connection is offered between Silver Linings Playbook and The Artist, which swept the Oscars last year; and also with films including Little Miss Sunshine and Napoleon Dynamite. The Artist‘s easy elegance – an elegance won through silence, which is resolved in a dance both energetic and fun, but also graceful and lithe – allows it to stand apart. The other two films exemplify a contemporary tendency to either play dance for laughs, with so-bad-they-must-be-good performances which are supposedly nourishing because so free of care; or to make an impending dance appear an impending disaster which, when the dance in fact comes good, provides a sort of transcendence for the character involved. In these latter cases, the aim of displaying dance on screen is to encourage the audience’s warmth. Silver Linings Playbook takes a different tack. The dance between Pat and Tiffany is not framed for us as surprisingly triumphant or comically disarrayed (Tiffany’s leap upon Pat’s shoulders aside), but is instead shown as enthusiastic yet mediocre – which mediocrity, by way of a 5.0 out of 10.0 score and a clever plot device, ties the film’s story-points together and makes the evening of the competition a success.

Pat and Tiffany’s dance demonstrates no remarkable talent; and it is neither transcendent nor the cause of some psychological breakthrough or breakdown; yet it is revealing in a subtler way. We see Pat and Tiffany meet for rehearsal each day in Tiffany’s converted apartment, but we see very little of their actual rehearsing, very little of the dance which they are working upon. Instead, we witness the characters communicate with each other before, after, or in between rehearsals, and their conversations often involve stakes not explicitly relating to the dance: most prominently, Pat, who has only agreed to dance in an attempt to win back his wife, repeatedly focuses on a letter he has sent to her through Tiffany, for which he is hopeful of a response. In this way the dance itself is concealed, so when we do see it in full on the evening of the competition, though the performance qualitatively is mediocre, it is revelatory in implying their route and showing the point to which Pat and Tiffany have come: the dance is amateurish but intimate, and emphasises the cloaked truth that to dance with someone is to be intimate with them, and to enter deeply into a shared dance requires a physical and emotional connection. How could Pat and Tiffany not become close practicing this dance each day?

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In such a manner the structure of the story is to suggest the potential of a relationship between Pat and Tiffany, but to hide the flow and development of that relationship from us, to make its appearance unsure, until revealing at the climax its progression and its logic. Pat Sr., played by De Niro, has been gambling superstitiously on football games, aiming to make sufficient money to open a restaurant. Pat Sr. maintains the notion that the success of his team and of his betting depends on Pat Jr. witnessing the games; after encouraging Pat to miss a dance rehearsal in order to attend a game in person, and subsequently losing much of his money when things don’t go to plan, Pat Sr. contrives a new bet, a parlay, double or nothing, comprising a football game and the result of the dance. Berated by Tiffany for missing practice, disapproving of his father’s new bet, and feeling generally abused, Pat declares that he’s pulling out of the dance competition, and leaves the group to go outside. Pat Sr. and Tiffany, desiring Pat to compete for different reasons, agree to mislead him into thinking his wife will be at the dance competition, believing this is the only way to ensure his attendance.

We do not see either Pat Sr. or Tiffany inform Pat that his wife is going to be there: instead, we assume that they’ve convinced him of this by Pat’s presence the next day for dance rehearsal as usual. So Pat and Tiffany rehearse through the week, and the evening of the competition arrives, and by chance Pat’s wife does make an appearance. After Pat and Tiffany dance and achieve the score required to win Pat Sr. his bet, Pat moves across the room to talk to his wife. This distresses Tiffany, revealing her emotional attachment to Pat. When Pat takes leave of his wife and finds out that Tiffany has fled the building, he races after her and the pair express their love for one another. We realise that Pat made his decision to dance not because of anything Pat Sr. or Tiffany said to convince him – but because, when outside on the doorstep alone after threatening to quit, he unraveled Tiffany’s feelings for him and, inwardly, without expression, understood that he felt the same for her.

Robert De Niro gives a strong portrayal throughout the film. When Pat Jr. goes to his wife in the ballroom and whispers into her ear, causing Tiffany to flee, we sense Pat Sr.’s emotion and also his reserve – we sense his inclination to go after her, but he restrains himself; marching stridently, however, towards his son to tell him what he himself knows he must do. De Niro chasing after Lawrence would have been a powerful scene, a most esteemed older actor progressing towards possibly the most acclaimed young actress about; but this would have taken something from Cooper’s magnificent performance, and was not the way for the resolution of the plot, the couple coming together of their own volition.

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