10 years ago I put aside, to watch later, the newly released Tell me a Riddle (1980) dvd. I just found it lost amongst some books. I could not resist letting go the boring Xmas preparations and taking a peep at it. I sat down for a quick viewing.
10 minutes into the film I had to stop and invite my partner to watch it with me.
I usually view films about old women on my own and before I read any reviews online. This was a film that looked promising about an old couple. Not the quiet, peaceful-loving traditional resigned old couple of Make Room for Tomorrow or Tokyo Story, the sad couple of Amour or the warring one of Le Chat.
Here we are introduced to the problems of a couple who have different needs in their old age. A sulking woman who does not want to downsize and her volatile husband who wants to sell the house and retire to a Union members old peoples home.
A pan of sepia photos gives the Russian immigrant background of the couple. I was struck by some images during the introduction. The husband David out in the open while the wife Eva is indoors cooking and cleaning. Above all the image of David trying to climb the ladder to the roof is wonderful. He suffers from arthritis and makes a brave effort to climb the first two steps of ladder to the roof and then looks up despairingly to the rest of the steps and decides that he cannot do this anymore. A powerful image of suddenly taking consciousness of the limits of one’s ageing body.
While Melvin Douglas gives a good performance as the ageing home decorator David, Lila Kedrova is just irritating, unbelievably passive and self-pitying at times and aggressive at others. It is difficult to understand her character as she is burdened with a traumatic political activist life in Russia with frequent flashbacks and nightmares. She was an intellectual in the past and now is reduced to household duties. Not told by her family or husband, she is diagnosed with terminal cancer and has one year to live. Is she dementing as well? nobody knows least of all her useless family and the viewer
We gave up watching 30 mins into the film when the couple arrive in San Francisco to stay with granddaughter Jeanette, a stereotypical West Coast young woman. It is then that I sought help from the online critics. To my surprise there were very few. It is so unusual that a film is hardly represented in Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic and IMDB sites, on general release (1980) or dvd release (2008). There were 4 reviews between them with only one positive.
I decided to continue and suffer to the bitter end in order to understand why I disliked the film so much. Although I realise that examining failure is more instructive than success I feel that I would waste my time analysing the chaotic mix of major ageing issues, unbelievable characters and stereotypical cinematography for the time being.