It’s the big what-if, the one situation that, in your heart of hearts, you hope and pray you’ll never have to confront.
But in “The Guitar,” first-time director Amy Redford (yes, she’s his daughter), working from a script by Amos Poe, elides the question – what would I do if I found out I only had a couple of months left to live? – in a quietly elegant and soulful film.
Her movie focuses on Melody Wilder (how’s that for a portentous name?), who has a very bad day to start the film: Her doctor tells her that she has an inoperable and aggressive cancer that will kill her in less than two months. She returns to her office and, before she can tell anyone, is informed that she’s been downsized. When she calls her boyfriend to tell him, he meets her and preempts her news with his own announcement that they should stop seeing each other.
So Melody (played with a slightly high-strung distance by Saffron Burrows) cashes her severance check and decides to have the time of her life. She finds a huge, glossy – and empty – loft overlooking the Hudson River in the West Village and takes a short-term lease.
Then she goes on a catalog shopping spree, decorating it with all of the things she obviously has always denied herself: everything from a mammoth bed and sheets with lavish thread-counts to window treatments, lamps and other furniture. She’s indulging the interior designer within, knowing that her own bill will come due before the ones for her credit cards.
Her final gift to herself: the gorgeous red electric Stratocaster she could never have when she was a kid – never mind that she doesn’t play guitar. She’ll teach herself.
There is liberation in indulgence, she discovers, whether it is gorging herself on calorific take-out food or opening herself to the pleasures of the flesh offered by delivery people – Isaach de Bankole, Paz de la Huerta – of both genders, often at the same time.
What I like about this movie is its fearless willingness to be quiet and contemplative, to let Burrows’ intriguing face tell the story without talking it to death. Redford directs with great assurance, turning what could have been a claustrophobic setting into a kind of wonderland in which magic can and does occur – without ever making a big deal about it.
Burrows goes from gray to glowing as a woman for whom imminent death provides a new lease on life. She transforms herself from sad-sack victim to urban warrior, someone who discovers that indulging her inner consumer can be a life-affirming experience. Burrows’ secretive smile is one of the screen’s most seductive weapons.
She’s got the strength and the mystery to carry this movie, to keep you watching to see what this woman will do next to squeeze the last delicious drops from a life cut short. You’ll be surprised at the choices she makes.