Sunday 13 October 2019

Movie Review: Booby Deerfield (1977)

A romantic drama, Bobby Deerfield is a slow story about love blooming between a racing driver and a dying woman.

In Europe, Bobby Deerfield (Al Pacino) is an American driver on the elite Formula 1 motor racing circuit. Both he and his team are shocked when a fiery race accident claims the life of his teammate. He demands to know the cause of the crash prior to the next race, while his long-time girlfriend Lydia (Anny Duperey) tries to provide comfort.

Bobby heads off to visit Karl Holtzmann, another driver hurt in the wreck and now recuperating. At the hospital he meets the free spirited Lillian Morelli (Marthe Keller), who appears to be a patient but hitches a ride out with Bobby. On the long drive they get to know each other. She talks a lot and asks many questions, while he is reserved and subdued. Nevertheless a romance blossoms as Bobby prepares for his next race.

Although supposedly set in the world of car racing, Bobby Deerfield's profession may as well be watching paint dry. Neither the Alvin Sargent script, adapting the book Heaven Has No Favorites by Erich Maria Remarque, nor director Sydney Pollack appear to have a clue as to how to make use of the sport as a backdrop. So the entire motor racing subtext is reduced to three short and frantic scenes, two of which appear remarkably similar and end in crashes, while the third features an unconvincing crash analysis session.

Most of the film unfolds as a languid European road trip travelogue, Bobby either alone or with Lillian criss-crossing the continent from one barely defined destination to another in pursuit of poorly described purposes. The spectre of death hovering over Bobby and extending from the track to Lillian's disease may have carried some intellectual promise, but the conversations that are supposed to nourish the romance are pointlessly slow to the point of exhaustion. Lillian's lust for a receding life crashes against Bobby's emotional constipation, and they mostly get mad at each other for communicating on different wavelengths. In real terms these two would have fled from each other in opposite directions, but because the script demands it here they fall in love in slow motion.

Al Pacino goes through the entire film with a singular expression of annoyed tedium, although he may be unsuccessfully trying to sort out the meaning of life and death behind the wall of pregnant pauses and one-word non-answers. Marthe Keller overcompensates with an animated portrayal of Lillian, a woman seeking to meet death on her own terms. Anny Duperey shares the pain with her own series of dead-end conversations with Bobby. The rest of the characters are pushed so far into the background none of them register.

The scenery is picturesque, Pollack finding plenty of vistas featuring quaint European towns and idyllic rural landscapes. And here Bobby Deerfield finds its true calling, as a perfect example of cinematic still life.

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