Arithmetic doesn’t add up

Holocaust drama compelling awkward

We’ve all heard of (and no doubt watched very powerful films about) Nazi concentration camps like Auschwitz and Dachau — but little cinematic attention has been paid to the experience of those interned in transitional European Nazi camps like Drancy which was located near Paris. Based on Matt Cohen’s novel Emotional Arithmetic focuses on a group of characters whose relatively short stay in Drancy affects the remainder of their lives.

A young American girl named Melanie finds herself alone at Drancy after being separated from her parents. At the camp Melanie befriends an Irish boy named Christopher as well as Jakob a young man who selflessly bribes a guard to swap his name for those of his two young friends on a list of prisoners headed to Auschwitz. The film takes place in the mid-’80s when an elderly Jakob (Max von Sydow) after a life spent in the camps prison and a mental institution comes to stay with a now 50-something Melanie (Susan Sarandon) and her husband David (Christopher Plummer). Jakob arrives with a gift in the form of a grown Christopher (Gabriel Byrne) whose presence fills Melanie with anxiety. As the film unfolds so do complex tensions between Melanie David and Christopher. This is on top of Melanie’s own mental instability which stems from her time in Drancy.

No one wants to pan a Canadian-produced movie about Holocaust survivors but Emotional Arithmetic is not without its flaws. While the subject matter is certainly compelling and the complexities of the characters’ relationships put a unique spin on the typical survivor story (this is ultimately a film about relationships not the war) this film is about as awkward as its unfortunate title. The actors all give decent performances (though Sarandon is a little loopy) and the dialogue is believable enough but something is off. Chalk it up to bad chemistry or an over-intellectualization of the subject matter but there’s just no real passion. An interesting story and a good history lesson as well as some beautiful shots of the Quebec countryside make this one worth watching but a lack of impact keeps Emotional Arithmetic from hitting the mark.