[To mark the 10th anniversary of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, we’re reposting this deep dive into the work of director David Fincher. This article contain spoilers.]
Across his filmography, David Fincher‘s work has been noted as dark, foreboding, chilly, cynical, cutting, and irreverent. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a striking anomaly in his filmography as the allure of the project makes some sense, but the execution is a lush, unabashed romance bubbling with mawkish sentiment. The movie is graceful, beautiful, poetic, and yet oddly distant. The whole production feels gilded as Fincher made a deeply moving film out of a fairly terrible script. The most curious thing about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is how it manages to be a tearjerker despite its craven desire to elicit emotion from a director who rejects sentimentality.
In an interview in David Prior‘s excellent The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button documentary (which is longer than the movie), Fincher says he was attracted to the project because he wanted to make a movie about death since his father had recently died. He explains that being at his father’s deathbed was so much more profound than having a child. “You want it to be over as quickly as possible,” says Fincher, “and yet you don’t want it to be over.” This led to him wanting to tell a story about “Love measured against this graph paper of something we try so desperately to ignore.”
That’s a really lovely sentiment (aside from using graph paper), but yes, love and death are intertwined as they give each other meaning. However, Fincher says that unlike Brad Pitt, he didn’t see Benjamin Button as a love story. He saw it as a “death story”, and not a tale of co-dependency. And at the end of the documentary, he says (half-jokingly), “I don’t want to see anybody together. I want to see everybody as unhappy as me. Everybody in this movie dies. That’s how I was able to stomach the rest of it.” Cate Blanchett describes Fincher as a cynic, and although I’ve never met him, as I’ve stated before, I don’t think his work is purely cynical. That being said, I think the love story in Benjamin Button is one of the most powerful yet completely disingenuous I’ve ever seen.
The “death story” is where Fincher’s heart truly lies, and the movie begins with that attitude. The first shot is Daisy (Blanchett) lying on her deathbed in New Orleans, and Hurricane Katrina is bearing down on the city. The following scene is the allegory of Monsieur Gateau (Elias Koteas), a blind man who lost his son in World War I, and made a clock that ran backwards to represent the hope of bringing back all those who died. A blind man makes a pretty, heartfelt sentiment, for something that can never happen, and then sails off into nothing where he dies of a broken heart.
This is not the most uplifting way to begin your movie, but it’s also filled with a romanticism that pervades the entire picture (such as having a gigantic symbol of a clock running backwards in a movie where the protagonist ages backwards). That’s part of the intriguing and frustrating paradox of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button—you have a cynic trying to make a romance, and working furiously to stay true to his belief that this is a movie about death and regrets when the script is nothing but life lessons and platitudes.
For Fincher, it’s not that this movie has to be a funeral dirge even though the cinematography is steeped in his traditional dark color palette albeit tinged with amber, gold, and other warm colors permeating the scenes outside of Daisy’s deathbed and the conclusion of Benjamin’s life. Benjamin Button is trying to sing a ballad with the bittersweet and melancholy undertones, but there’s almost no support from a storytelling perspective.
Based off the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has a very simple premise: a man is born old and dies young. In the movie, the being-born-old part is surprising and oddly miraculous, although his age is completely superficial. Benjamin (Pitt) is not born wise. He just looks old and has a child’s mind. This leads to misunderstandings both comical (going to a brothel with Captain Mike (Jared Harris)) and painful (being chastised by Grandma Fuller (Phillys Somerville) for his late-night rendezvous with young Daisy (Elle Fanning)). But he still has to learn everything like the rest of us, and the nature of his condition doesn’t drastically change his life experience. Growing up in an old folks home and surrounded by natural causes of death is an unusual but not radical experience. He’s seemingly different, but easily relatable.
We’re meant to accept death through its most romantic interpretation. When the soldiers in the Gateau story fall in battle, it’s in vibrant, slow motion without any limbs getting blown off or bloodcurdling cries of pain. When Benjamin goes to war, everyone who dies on the ship has digital blood-spatter, but nothing gruesome (even all of the blood coming out of Captain Mike is digital). If not for Daisy, death in Benjamin Button would always be some noble passing. At its most ideal, death can come peacefully, but it’s not the only way, and Benjamin Button would choose to ignore that reality as much as possible.