Sarah Michelle Gellar in “Veronika Decides to Die” (20??)
It may seem that, with the track record she has had during the aughts, Sarah Michelle Gellar really couldn’t find her foot in a great role after Buffy the Vampire Slayer went off air. What did she really have? The Grudge movies? But one thing that I feel many shouldn’t really jump to is hating on the actress because, outside of the mainstream films she’s done, Gellar has proven that she has what it takes to deliver, if only she has the right material to chew on. Fortunately, she has found that type of role. Sadly, her film is stuck in distribution limbo.
If I mentioned the film’s title, Veronika Decides to Die, you’ll probably just shrug your shoulders not knowing what the heck I’m talking about. Well, let’s just say that, while not yet released (but rumored to be available on torrents online), Gellar’s performance in this very film is bruising with the fierce naturalism of a true thespian. You may not be prepared for the compelling and utterly devestating work of Gellar that is, if anything, a beautiful tour-de-force of a performance. The former televison-star cum Scooby’s partner Daphne breaks away from vanity and showiness, and bares all in a raw and ferocious showcase of depression. Whenever, if ever, Veronika reaches a US distribution (or even DVD release), let’s just say Gellar’s a lock for my personal Oscar ballot.
Now, before I oversell it, I need to pull myself back a little bit and try to avoid typical film critic masturbation expletives and just lay out what makes Gellar’s performance so goddam special. Unlike most performances by celebrities with hyper-active fanboys, Gellar bravely strips away all vanity for the character of Veronika, a thirty-something businesswoman suffering from depression, and brings the viewer head-on into a collision of emotional exhaustion. Veronika is a lonely character, but also a selfish one, and it’s tremendously refreshing how dedicated Gellar becomes in delivering the reality of the character without sugar-coating the ugliness. She doesn’t try to create a heroine, just a fleshed-out human being who has convinced herself that life is nothing but a depressing field of emptiness.
Now, while Gellar is superb in the part, it needs to be pointed out immediately that there is a huge flaw in Emily Young’s (and probably even author Paulo Coelho’s) approach to the theme of humanity in the narrative development. It could be said that, with the film’s final scenes, that Young is slowing arriving the point of her movie being about how Veronika is wrong and that life is or can be happy if we only wait for it. It’s kind of a corny message, and it’s easily the only flaw in the entire film itself, but it’s very assuring that Gellar plays it in such a different shade. While Young is trying to make a morality tale, Gellar never lets go of Veronika’s oppressive viewpoint of the world.
When the film first starts, Young immediately dips us into the everyday life of Veronika, sporting a montage that is beautifully put-together as it teaches everything we need to know about this woman’s animosity toward existence. Gellar narrates these passing scenes with such a stern tone, like she has figured out the very bleak truth of human existence while the rest of the world ignores that very truth.
“Well let’s see… after you decide that I’m depressed or whatever, you’ll put me on meds, right? And I’ve met hundreds of people on them and they are doing fine. I’ll go back to work on my new anti-depressants. Have dinner with my parents, persuade them that I’m back to being the normal one who never gives them any trouble. Then one day, some guy will ask me to marry him. I mean it’s enough, it will make my parents very happy. In the first year we will make love all the time, and then in the second and third, less and less. But just as we’re getting sick of each other, I’ll get pregnant. Taking care of kids, holding up a job, paying mortgages, it’ll keep us on moving keel for awhile.
And then about ten years into it, he’ll have an affair because I’m too busy and too tired and I’ll find out. I’ll threaten to kill him, his mistress, myself. We’ll get past it and in a few years he’ll have another one, but this time I’m just going to pretend I don’t know ’cause somehow keeping up a fuss just doesn’t seem worth the trouble this time. And I’ll live out the rest of my days, sometimes wishing my kids could have a life that I never had. Other times secretly pleased they’re turning into repeats of me. I’m fine, really.”
These words haunt the entire film because we know that Veronika is stubborn, and we’re pretty sure that she will deny any kind of happiness to even slightly make her feel a bit more relevant. It’s the way the monologue begins, as if it’s directed at us (although it’s probably a past discussion she had with her therapist). Like, what would we suggest for her? Medication? Isn’t that we always lay down on someone emotionally dying deep inside? And we get this all in under five minutes, through the nature of Gellar’s voice, and the vulnerability and showmanship of the multiple images that grace the screen. It comes through so strong that we are very much not surprised when the following scene after is of her attempting to guzzle the same prescription medication that was more than likely given to her for the very depression that is causing her to feel so wrecked.
It may be a fault in Young’s choosing that Radiohead storms the suicide scene like a hammer to the head, but Gellar doesn’t allow for the direction to even matter in this scene. This woman knows Veronika inside out, almost terrifyingly so, and she creates a storm louder than Young’s music selection. Gellar uses her face, her eyes, her very physique to both project Veronika’s desperation and the very pain it must feel to slowly drift toward death. It’s very refreshing that not once do we feel that she regrets her decision, something any other actress probably would have worked into the scene. Gellar articulately lets us know that that is just not how a person in an emotionally-catatonic state sees reaching the end. Through her body language, you can read what she’s feeling: “This is painful, but it’s only the last painful thing I’ll feel. All will be calm very soon.”
And it is these very tics in Gellar’s aesthetic that makes her work so damn painful. After failing the suicide, and waking up in the institution, Gellar is upset that she failed at her goal and then gets even more upset when she is told that the medication messed up her heart and that she only has a few days to live. ”I have to wait that long?” she chillingly says, angered. Her crave for self-destruction is insistent, but Gellar makes it so disturbingly authentic. It comes as no surprise that she feels even more depressed realizing that, in the end, this fucked-up world once again wins at destroying her as a human being and she has no control in doing it herself. Once again you can read her body language as if she’s thinking: “The goddam irony…”
One of the reasons why it’s easy to forgive director Young’s motives are in her choices to follow Gellar completely throughout the entirety of the film, so we get to watch Gellar as she fascinatingly goes through a myriad of pessimistic and, sometimes, confused emotions while staying at the institution. There are colorful, although somewhat one-dimensional, supporting characters to be had (although gotta give major props to David Thewlis and Melissa Leo), but they never steal the lead’s ferocity. But seriously, when a person is this deep in a character’s skin, how the heck could you?
While we watch Veronika go from one room to another, talk to one co-character and then another, we eventually get to one of the film’s subplots involving Jonathan Tucker’s character, a mute younger man who wanders the premises and slightly stalks Veronika. It’s easily deemed creepy by the viewer, but it’s in Veronika’s reaction that we gain more insight and understanding from the character. Once again, it seems like Young is wanting this man to help show Veronika a door into a happy life. Gellar, however, performs the scenes with a very melancholic pitch, as if she is curious about Tucker’s behavior (and the obvious sexual fascination he has over her) and kind of uses it to her advantage to gain the control over the man. It’s almost like she’s doing this as a “fuck you” to the whole fact that, whatever it is out there, didn’t allow her to have that control over killing herself. Why not control another human being completely, then?
There’s a scene about an hour into the film, where Veronika goes into the music hall to play the piano at night. There was already a previous scene in which she knew that the man interested in her has been lingering around listening to her play (beautiful!) music. So what does she do? Plays another tune for him before stripping her clothes and masturbating for him. Maybe Gellar didn’t go as physical in this scene as she could have (there is no on-screen nudity in the scene) but all is forgiven with the way she invokes, with her eyes… with the orgasms… that she is gaining complete control over him, but, when she finally does climax, gives one single look that assures us that maybe, just maybe, she is gaining feelings for him, even if they didn’t sprout from the conventional reason reason that is called for in the screenplay.
And thus begins the relationship between the two characters that ultimately leads them to run away from the institution and roam around New York City together in what is, perhaps, the most beautiful (and perhaps even the most depressing..!!) scenes in the film. She has found a strong bond in this man, but she also seems aware (you can just feel it through Gellar’s expression) that it’s only going to last so long. Not because she’s going to die soon, but because even if she hadn’t, she’d probably start showing her emotional viciousness when she eventually gets tired and feels violated by him just as she does with the rest of the world.
There are few times on film where you can just feel like you are watching a truly depressed individual. Gellar’s performance here is one of those rarities. Young’s advertisements for the film may assume that “it wasn’t until Veronika decided to die that she decided to live”, but Gellar is aware that a true Veronika in the real world would realize that even if Veronika did find someone who makes her happy, she would still not be able to take her mind off of the negative things surrounding those very pleasant feelings. While running around NYC, the two stop at a food stand and order some food. When asked how she feels, Veronika smiles with a mouthful of food: “Like I could live forever.” And every time I even think about the delivery of that line, I get a sensation of chills following a knot in my throat. It’s just perfect.
Looking back on some of the many things I’ve lingered on and took away from Gellar’s performance, I’m getting terrified that I’m building a bit too much expectation on you readers, even though I stated I was trying like to hell to avoid it. But all I can say is that, no matter how much I try, there’s no way I could keep away from just praising every aspect of Gellar’s craft here. It’s one of those, what I like to call, invisible performances where the performer doesn’t necessarily act or perform a written part, but actually speaks, breathes, and lives in the flesh of a whole other person entirely. (Another extraordinary example of an “invisible performance” from the past five years is Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson, and I’m not denying that I feel Gellar’s performance holds up to that one, even if Gosling’s film was altogether better.) It’s the very definition of what I look for in a performance.
Whether the film gets a theatrical release before the end of this year, or 2011, or even an (undeserving) direct-to-DVD release, I will try my hardest to get as many people to see it now as opposed to later. For the actressexuals at heart (and I’m very much a faithful one of them), this is a performance that needs to be seen, even if you don’t arouse to being as enthusiastic about the performance as I am, you definitely won’t be disappointed in seeing that Gellar is definitely one of the undeserving performers approaching the dreadful label of “celebrity has-been”. Her performance in Veronika Decides to Die will make you tremble. It’s the kind of vanity-free, bruising performance the actresses screaming for Oscars only wish they could give. Whatever year the film manages to come out, Gellar’s got pretty hardcore potential at being that year’s best performance.