Human Nature Review
According to the Roman legend, Remus and Romulus were placed in a trough and thrown into the river Tiber by their great-uncle Amulius. When the trough was washed up on the banks of the river, the two boys were found by a she-wolf and raised in the wild. They were later found by the king's shepherds, who named them and watched them grow to be warriors. On deciding to found a town of their own, Romulus chose the place on the banks of the river Tiber where the she-wolf had found them and began to build the city of Rome.
From that time through to last year, when Traian Caldarar, a young Romanian boy who was found aged seven, having been thought to have lived with stray dogs in the Transylvanian countryside, the notion of feral humans living with wild animals has fascinated us, probably none more so than the story of Kaspar Hauser. With Human Nature, writer Charlie Kaufman ponders whether the decision to live either a wild or a civilised life could be a choice faced by humans and what, as a result, might happen should they choose to live differently to how society expects them to.
Human Nature opens with a shooting in the woods and the three protagonists of the film - Lila (Patricia Arquette), Puff (Rhys Ifans) and the recently deceased Nathan (Tim Robbins) - explaining their position on the events just passed. The location in which each one finds themselves reflects how their lives have recently turned - Puff is giving evidence in a congressional hearing room, Lila is in a police interviewing cell and Nathan is in Heaven, deathly pale and with a trickle of blood flowing out of the bullet hole in his forehead.
Lila begins the film by describing her background through flashback, showing that her strict childhood changed forever at the onset of puberty when a patch of hair appeared on her chest began a case of hirsutism that would eventually cover her entire body. Feeling that society would not be understanding of her, she leaves the city to live in a forest, where she writes books on her rejection of civilisation but the lack of intimate contact forces her back to an urban environment, to a cosmetic surgery clinic for depilatory through electrolysis and into a relationship with Nathan, an uptight doctor obsessed with table manners and his small penis. However, on a camping trip into the forest, they come upon a feral man, unable to speak in anything other than grunts but who is in possession of an uncontrollable sex drive. Nathan, being a zoologist, takes him back to his research lab, names him Puff and begins to study his find, hoping to civilise him. When Lila's hairlessness is discovered by Nathan and he rejects her, she battles back against the society to which she had previously conformed so as to discover her own form of Human Nature...
Human Nature was written by Charlie Kaufman following his success alongside director Spike Jonze after making the critically acclaimed and commercially successful Being John Malkovich. As that writing and directing team reconvened on Adaptation, released both in the cinemas and on DVD at the same time as this, Human Nature saw Kaufman work with the French music video and commercial director, Michel Gondry, on his first feature. Unfortunately, the result is neither as satisfying as Kaufman's work with Jonze, who has produced Human Nature, nor even some of Gondry's music videos, despite an obvious talent for inventive visuals.
Primarily the film examines what it means to be human - is it Puff living a simple life of innocence in the wild but who is brought to the city to be both educated and civilised? Maybe, it's Lila, who grew up in suburbia, left for the countryside but soon finds that she misses the comforts of city life. Could it even be Nathan, who had any irresponsibility or lack of conformity driven out of him whilst he was still a child? Well, the answer, according to Human Nature is...well, the film actually doesn't provide an answer as such. How the film works is in being a piece of gentle whimsy, albeit one with considerably more adult situations and language than that might suggest, showing how these characters maintain their belief in their own interpretation of humanity. For Puff, this means being transformed from a life lived effectively as an ape to one of genteel, urbane normality within the city. Lila's rejection of civilisation makes her exceptionally focused on being able to confidently achieve her desires but her return to the city results in a conversion to a meek housewife, concerned as to what fork to use. Finally, Nathan...he doesn't cope at all, finding that his relationship, work and beliefs crumble about him. That Kaufman's script brings these stories together in a way that is coherent, yet skewed, much as he did with Being John Malkovich, indicates that he is one of the more interesting and individual writers in Hollywood.
That the film does not succeed completely, however, indicates that perhaps Gondry was not yet ready for a full-length feature. Human Nature tries hard to work but Gondry never really gets to the heart of how to visualise Kaufman's script. For example, there is a sequence early on in the film in which Lila walks through the forest removing her clothes as she returns to the wild. As she does so, the natural setting of the on-location shoot is transformed into a set complete with dreadfully obvious back-projection as well as a treadmill onto which Arquette steps as she bursts into song. At such a moment, you'll be left scratching your head and wondering if Gondry failed to make it in for a couple of days only to find that a couple of radical art students had taken over the direction instead. Does it work? Not in the slightest but one is never entirely sure if this was intentional or just one idea that fails to be properly executed.
Then again, a major fault of the film is a result of the flat delivery of situations and lines that ought to be considerably funnier. For example, when Lila suggests to Nathan that maybe they ought to try and have a baby, Nathan dreams of a fantasy sequence where their baby, just born and with Lila still lying on a hospital bed in a maternity ward, is revealed to be not a baby boy or girl, newborn and squealing, but a baby chimpanzee. On the printed page, there is a spark of humour about the scene but as filmed here, Arquette look so impassive as to suggest she might not be entirely in on the joke. Whilst Ifans and Robbins do at least seem to recognise that there are jokes in the film that need telling, the latter fails to demonstrate the deadpan delivery he has shown elsewhere whilst the former lacks that sense of physical comedy that made his turn in Notting Hill so successful. Otherwise, Miranda Otto does a great job as the duplicitous Gabrielle, out for herself and having an excellent time.
The film has been anamorphically transferred in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and looks fine if a little unexciting. Whilst the interior scenes have been filmed in an uninvolving fashion, the exterior shots are richly coloured, almost a parody of natural landscapes with deep green fauna, the reflection of bright sunlight and a vibrant capturing of wildlife, all of which Gondry showed that he was capable of doing when he directed Bjork's Human Behaviour video in 1993, which this film brings immediately to mind. Admittedly some of these scenes have been shot within a studio rather than in a natural setting, which explains their slightly unnatural appearance but it rather suits the film. The DVD is well-equipped to handle the colours within these scenes, replicating the richness of the pristine original print without any noticeable flaws.
Human Nature has been presented with a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack but falls some way short of being a reference disk. Given that the film is rather talky, the front speakers carry the majority of the audio track with the rear speakers offering very little sound aside from the minimal use of echo in a number of scenes.
Human Nature has been released with a small number of extras but does include the following:
Audio Commentary: Featuring director Michel Gondry and star Rhys Ifans, this commentary offers little information on the film and is, at times, difficult to listen to. Ifans and Gondry both have strong accents - one Welsh, the other French - and even have trouble understanding one another at times, further hindered by Ifans often only mumbling. Any humour, therefore, is lost as Ifans delivers a one-liner, only to be followed by Gondry's, "uh...pardon?", resulting in a retelling of said line as the moment fades from memory. There are also a fair number of silences as conversation dries up between the two but Gondry makes a valiant effort to keep things moving.
Human Nature Feature (5m58s, 1.33:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): This features the main stars of Human Nature describing each of their characters against a series of highlights that summarises the plot.
Teaser Trailers (7m03s, 1.85:1 Anamorphic, Dolby Digital 5.1): Ten teaser trailers have been included around the theme of 'How To Make The World More Human', constructed around highlights from the film.
Human Nature is no more than a mediocre film, despite a obviously smart and funny script by Kaufman but which is badly let down by Gondry's aimless direction and the bland turns by almost everyone involved, Miranda Otto excepted. The central concept certainly works in the manner that Kaufman would have intended it to and there is a sense that a better director could have made a film that might have been just as successful as Being John Malkovich but this isn't it.
Interestingly, Gondry is once again directing from a Kaufman script, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, so one expects that they considered this a success. Don't believe that for a second - it's not great, it's not terrible but just don't think it's another Being John Malkovich.