To be or not to be: And maybe find love along the way

Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her

"Only a fool would speculate about the life of a woman," says blind Carol (Cameron Diaz) towards the end of this finely-woven film. Indeed this is a film that shows rather than speculates, as it charts short courses in the love lives of various Los Angeles women.

It’s been a popular style of late: telling almost-independent stories that are connected by a mere single character (think Short Cuts, Magnolias). And it works well here. Although in some ways a film of this style is rarely as satisfying as a solid feature film – they tend to feel more like a series of shorts – the connections here serve to be much more than convenient plot devices and actually reveal further facets of a character’s life. The sum of the whole here is greater than the parts, which is saying something as the parts themselves are wonderfully intimate portraits of ordinary women – each impeccably acted.

There’s the aloof Dr Elaine Keener (Glenn Close) who calls a tarot card reader while playing nurse to a brutally elderly woman. She’d like to know her future; there’s a man at work. "Tall. Pale skin." And he won’t return her calls. There’s 39-year-old bank manager Danielle (Holly Hunter), who’s pregnant to a married man and is questioning their future for the first time. "Maybe you’re the one used to doing the avoiding," she snaps at Walter (Matt Craven), a co-worker she sleeps with during her crisis, when he indicates that he wants to continue their relationship. There’s children’s book writer and single-mum Rose (Kathy Baker), who steals one of the funniest scenes in the film when she gets sprung staring at her new neighbour through his back door as he sleeps. Instead of explaining that she’s brought a gift for him, she simply flees. Their unusual fledgling romance is warm and inspiring. Then there’s Christine (Calista Flockhart) and Lilly (Valeria Gonelo); Lilly is dying, and asks Christine to recount their first meeting.

Finally there’s Kathy (Amy Brenneman) and Carol. Kathy is a detective who has been called to the suicide of a woman she knew a long time ago. This woman is glimpsed on the periphery in various parts of the film, and the motives for her suicide aren’t clear. Carol enjoys speculating about what could have driven her to do it while she prepares for the dates that Kathy never seems to go on.

There’s an underlying sadness and bleakness about the characters; they appear to be almost victims, searching incessantly for the partner who will make their lives complete, or desperately trying not to lose them. But as Rose’s 15-year-old son says, "Everybody’s looking." Including Walter and Rose’s son, who long just as much for partnership – love, even – as any of the women.

Hope is not universal in real life, and neither is it for these characters, who are simply doing the best they can as they slowly transform into the fragile old woman being nursed by Dr Keenan at the beginning of the film – or the prematurely dead woman, who is seen at the end.

Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her is a film that empathises with the people it respectfully portrays. To the credit of first-time director Rodrigo Garcia (who’s the son of novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez) audiences will almost feel as if they are eavesdropping on ordinary lives; and in doing so, may learn something about their own.

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