THE CITY OF YOUR FINAL DESTINATION (2009)

THE CITY OF YOUR FINAL DESTINATION (2010)

Depending on which review you read, this film was made in 2008 or 2009 and released in 2010, after being previewed in 2007.  This deluge of dates means that the film was made one year after the sad death of Ismail Merchant, the long time filmmaking partner to James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.  The City of Your Final Destination, based upon a novel by Peter Cameron, takes place in 1995, a hundred years later in time than the trio’s usual territory, the Nineteenth Century.  Room with a View, Howard’s End, and Remains of the Day—the mere names bespoke high quality. Many of the Merchant Ivory films were based upon novels, such as The Golden Bowl, and recreated a lovely nostalgic soft haze through which we glimpsed a longed-for past.   What saves Merchant Ivory films from pointless romance is their fascination with the subtle interactions among a small cast of characters whose lives are entangled, often with disastrous results.   The City of Your Final Destination uses the literary device of a small isolated group of gentry whose apparently placid surface is ruffled by the sudden arrival of an outsider.  The outsider exposes the unease beneath the aristocratic veneer.  Tensions erupt and changes occur and life goes on.  This new film, a James Ivory Film, without Merchant, is about people who are dis-placed, refugees who have been re-placed in a site of refuge and retreat.   The cast is clustered together like so many balls on the green baize surface of a pool table, waiting to be broken apart.

The disrupter is the young and lovely, Omar, played by Omar Metwally, whose future career depends upon getting the permission of the remaining members of the Gund family to write a book on the late novelist, Jules.  In the book, Omar is trying to leverage his way into an academic job at the University of Kansas, but the location was moved, in the film, to the University of Colorado, perhaps because of Boulder’s beautiful mountain location.  The shift is an odd one, as Colorado is known for its engineering and mining and seems an unlikely place for an English professor to stake his professional future on a book about a novelist who wrote only one book.  But never mind, in the 1990s, one could get a full time job and even tenure on such a small accomplishment.  However, Omar is set in motion towards the Gund family when they refuse to give him authorization, and his girlfriend, Deidre, forces the passive young man to confront the family.  Omar is an unlikely catalyst.   He is passive and must be managed and taken care of and Deidre is more than happy to handle her boy toy.  But Omar becomes petulant and sets off on his own, travelling to an adventure to Uruguay.  The audience feels the author, Cameron, pick up the que stick and punch the Omar ball toward the triangle of placid balls.

The book on Gund is a mere MacGuffin: an English professor would write about the book, not the author, so the permission is a moot point, a mere plot device to put Omar on the move. It is clear that Omar, unlike Deidre, is unsuited to the rigors of academia and its notoriously nasty politics.  He is mis-placed.  Worse, Omar is impractical, a dreamer.  He is searching for something else.  The Gund family is also misplaced.  Refugees from Austria, fleeing from Hitler’s occupation of their country, the wealthy Gund family wound up in the fringes of the outskirts of Montevideo.  They are part of an expatriate community whose common language is English and whose common currency is wealth and privilege.  We seen few natives of Uruguay and are plunged onto an island of exiles, a kind of undeveloped paradise, where the Gund family live in close proximity within their compound.  At first it seems that their shared connection to the dead Jules holds the group together.  After all, the captivating Jules is described by his older brother, Adam, (Anthony Hopkins), as a manipulative man, an “unoriginal writer,” who was incapable of invention.  Unable to complete his second novel, Jules committed suicide.  But, as the story progresses in its leisurely manner, it seems that the family is held in place, not by a ghost, but by sheer inertia, cushioned by a dwindling but comfortable income.

Omar’s arrival feels like a homecoming.  He is among his own kind: the helpless and the passive.  The not-so-bereaved widow of Jules, Caroline (Laura Linney), has allowed his pregnant mistress, Arden (Charlotte Gainsbourg), to move into the ménage.  The two women appear to be friends, rather than rivals, further diminishing the importance of Jules.  Anthony Hopkins is the older brother, Adam, taken care of by his lover, Pete (Hiroyuki Sanada).  Pete has plans for the estate, if only there was money to put the land to work.  Omar is befriended by Arden’s beautiful long-haired little girl, Portia (Ambar Mallman), and predictably falls in love with her mother.  Arden is fragile and helpless and is looking for someone to love and take care of her.  Omar Metwally is prettier than Gainsbourg, if that is possible, and the two live an idyllic existence on the estate, as he waits, diffidently, for permission to act.  Caroline, the widow, finds Omar’s appearance irritating and she refuses to cooperate.   Adam draws Omar into a silly idea about smuggling jewelry.  The young scholar becomes less and less concerned with his book and more involved with the family, until he is stung by a bee and is rendered comatose. Deidre is summoned and arrives, a bundle of practical energy, a bull in the delicate china shop of the Gund family.  Deidre attempts to remove Omar from his paradise and return him to what she considers his rightful place, Boulder.  The film ends when Adam reveals that he has a cache of his mother’s jewelry, enough to buy out Caroline’s interest in the estate and to allow Pete to make the land productive.  Omar finally acts on his own and abandons Deidre and Boulder and retreats to the open arms of the Gund family, finding his place at last.

In the conclusion of the film, we meet the active and practical people in this domestic drama, Deidre (Alexandra Maria Lara) and Caroline, who encounter each other at a concert in New York.  It is clear that each has found the place she deserves.  Caroline looks radiantly beautiful and young and happy with her new man, and Deidre, no longer dragged down by Omar, has risen to the occasion and glows with glamour and self-assurance and has acquired a far superior mate.  Caroline tells Deidre that the other practical individual, Pete, has used the jewelry money to turn the estate into a thriving enterprise and that Omar and Arden have a child, “a sister for Portia.”  Caroline and Deidre have escaped from places that could not hold their energy, while the remaining Gund family, including Omar, stay in place in their retreat.  One might say that all the players, released by Omar’s two impulsive acts, have found themselves and have reached their Final Destination.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

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