British writer-director Sally Potter returned to the Berlinale earlier this year with The Roads Not Taken, and everyone wished that the red carpet at the Palast was a path she’d left untrodden: Her ninth feature was one of the Competition section’s biggest disappointments, and the film stands as one of this year’s most baffling misfires.
The Roads Not Taken chronicles a day in the life of Molly (Elle Fanning), who tries to get her dementia-suffering father Leo (Javier Bardem) to various appointments. Leo keeps getting what we discover to be flashbacks to both the Mexican countryside, where he and his first love Dolores (Salma Hayek) are struggling to keep their relationship alive, and to a Greek coastal town where he wrestles to finish his novel and becomes increasingly stalkerish towards a young woman (a struggling Milena Tscharntke). It’s a film that attempts to deal with different facets of loss – the loss of mental health, the loss of a child, and the loss of inspiration – and as much as this sounds intriguing, the result is astonishingly poor. Throughout the svelte-yet-patience-testing 85-minute runtime, Potter grasps at profundity but instead ticks off every platitude imaginable. The title also makes very little sense, as the flashbacks aren’t imagined life paths that could have been walked but, rather conventionally, Leo’s jigsaw-piece memories. As for the acting, the cast’s efforts are undercut at every turn by a script so awful that no seasoned thesp could salvage a decent performance from the one-note wreckage. Even Laura Linney, who briefly cameos as Leo’s ex-wife, doesn’t get the appropriate material to steal the show. Ultimately though, at that point, it’s just nice to see her.
Feel free to take another road and avoid this messy, shallow film that is ill-befitting of the director behind Orlando and 2017’s excellent, Berlinale-premiering chamber piece The Party.
The Roads Not Taken Directed by Sally Potter (UK, US, Spain, 2020), with Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning, Salma Hayek, Milena Tscharntke. Starts August 13.