Rodrigo Garcia's "Nine Lives" is that rare episode film that actually accrues a cumulative power and doesn't merely proceed from one segment to the next. By the time it's over it has become a testament to the inner resilience of women in coping with a critical moment in their lives.
Each sequence, unfolding powerfully in a single take, links deftly to the next with a smooth yet driving momentum, and individuals from one vignette turn up in another in an unobtrusive, credible manner that plays down coincidence to suggest instead the not-always-apparent interconnectedness in people's lives.
Each segment seems perfectly shaped and timed, not lasting a second too long yet always of sufficient length to be satisfying in itself. Garcia's large ensemble cast is impeccable, and he and his actors have created a film as memorable as it is subtle.
An especially fine example of Garcia's masterly control in developing a scene to its fullest is his second episode in which Robin Wright Penn's very pregnant Diana, while shopping at a Bel-Air gourmet grocery, encounters her first love, Damian (Jason Isaacs), whose inability to commit ended their relationship a decade earlier. Even though Damian has married, as has Diana, he instantly realizes he has never stopped loving her, and in his regret, selfishly resolves to force her to acknowledge that she feels the same way about him.
Damian starts out in a low enough key that Diana, though thrown by running into him, is finding the chance meeting pleasant enough until he starts bearing down on her. Diana therefore finds herself in a very public place having to confront an unexpected and painful truth and then rise above it, holding on to her dignity and determination all the same. Wright Penn beautifully reveals Diana's increasing inner turmoil along with her determination not to lose her self-control.
An especially harrowing sequence finds Lisa Gay Hamilton's Holly returning to her family home, waiting for her stepfather (Miguel Sandoval) to return from work, for a major showdown. In the meantime she has an anguished conversation with her younger sister Vanessa (Sydney Tamiia Poitier), whom she virtually raised, and it becomes clear that Holly has reached a point where she cannot move on with her life until she confronts her stepfather over what is pretty clearly his sexual abuse of her.
A composed and kindly Holly turns up in the penultimate sequence as a nurse in a hospital where Kathy Baker's Camille is struggling to face up to the loss of a breast to cancer while being gently comforted by her husband (Joe Mantegna). The final sequence seems aptly placed, where a recent widow (Glenn Close) has taken her young daughter (Dakota Fanning) to visit her husband's grave. This exceptionally subtle sequence finds the mother, acknowledging the eternal cycle of life and death, focusing on creating a positive experience for her daughter but instead discovering how badly she needs the child's loving comfort.
Other episodes find a teenager (Amanda Seyfried) attending to her wheelchair-using father (Ian McShane) so closely that he becomes concerned that she will sacrifice her life to his care while his wife (Sissy Spacek) secretly drifts toward infidelity (with Aidan Quinn). Holly Hunter's Sonia suddenly finds her lover (Stephen Dillane) revealing an intimate secret to another couple with whom they are having dinner.
"Nine Lives" is a sophisticated, elegant-looking film shot in distinctive, wide-ranging L.A. locales, but its real terrain is the human heart, explored with compassion and respect.
MPAA rating: R for language, sexual content and some violence
Times guidelines: Adult themes, suitable for mature younger teens
A Magnolia Pictures presentation. Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia. Producer Julie Lynn. Executive producer Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Cinematographer Zavier Perez Grobet. Editor Andrea Folprecht. Music Edward Shearmur. Costumes Maria Tortu. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.
At selected theaters.