The New Man | reviews, news & interviews
The New Man
The New Man
Surprising and engaging tale of IVF pregnancy
First-person documentary must steer the uneasy path between embarrassing confessional, narcissistic self-obsession and work that will resonate beyond the merely parochial context of home movies. The dangers surrounding the genre are of course one of the sources of its potential strength. The intimacy that near-absolute subjectivity affords is a plus. And so is the thrill of perhaps getting a glimpse behind the personae of everyday life.
The New Man chronicles close to a year in the life of film maker Josh Appignanesi and his wife, the writer and academic Devorah Baum. They are supposedly co-authors and directors of the film, but, revealingly, Josh takes the lead and provides from time to time an ironic inner monologue, part-commentary, part confessional reflection. The film tells the story of their attempt to have a child, in their late thirties, through IVF, the pregnancy and birth. The events hit Josh at a time of creative doldrums, and the "making" of a child is mirrored by his own feelings of impotence as a film maker.
The film is shot very simply, often in very wide angle with a fixed camera, allowing the people to move through the frame, and creating a consistent and engaging style out of necessity. It is clear that some moments are spontaneous, and others staged or even reconstructed. In the early parts of the story, Josh trades in a kind of humorous self-deprecation. He goes to the very edge of being cringe-making, and then retreats playfully. He displays a caricature of bewildered and melancholy self-obsession, the young man who hasn’t quite found his adult self, and for whom impending fatherhood is not just terra incognita but a horizon of terror.
Things take a dark turn when they discover that they're having twins, and that one of the two babies is destined to die in the womb. Much of the film’s strength lies in navigating the fall into tragic reality with great deftness, and after all the self-referential larking about, taking a hard left to pain, grief and unutterable loss with tact and some beauty. It’s as if a Jewish comedy of manners, albeit a quirky one, had, without us noticing, morphed into something much more serious and universal, an initiation into adulthood for Josh, and something more subtle and obscure for Devorah, who is, as it were, in the front-line, as women almost always are. The unobtrusive move from lightness to tragedy, and to some kind of wisdom beyond, is one of the film's very real strengths.
Documentary is all about telling stories, and narrative choices shape events into something that comes close to the invention that runs through fiction. The freshness and originality of The New Man owes a great deal to the clearly adventurous way in which Josh and Devorah seem to have unintentionally fallen into a film whose story they could not anticipate, and yet, as events unfolded, they have managed to extract from the unpredictable twists and turns of Devorah’s pregnancy a tale of life and death that raises all kinds of questions, but also functions very powerfully on an emotional level.
Although there is at times a feeling of contrivance and faux-naïf innocence, there is a lightness of touch – poetry even – in the way the film is put together. These qualities allow us to watch a couple facing parenthood, changes in their lives, their respective roles and their relationship in a way that is most unusual. It is rare to see a father talk about the feeling of being left out when his wife’s bulge begins to grow, just as much as it is to see that child-like sense of being neglected slowly transform into the joy of being a parent, and the new sense of being a responsible adult.
It is to the film makers’ credit that this coming-of-age drama is done with subtlety and a sense of life’s inevitable tragedies, rather than with the heavy hand of manipulative narrative devices or a fairy-tale resolution that suggests a happy ever-after.
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