In modern cinema, the most definitive depiction of platonic love, of affection and understanding, is from that scene in "Lost in Translation" where Bill Murray whispers something in Scarlett Johansson's ear. Then their characters part ways, possibly forever. It is a simple frame that says so much about them and their relation, without saying too much. Two decades before "Lost in Translation", a similar frame occurred in cinema, in Louis Malle's heartfelt "Atlantic City". It portrayed a different set of people, in a relation that is very different in nature yet similar in depth. It too, says so much about the people involved without saying too much.
The scene involves a scintillating Susan Sarandon (as Sally) and a charming Burt Lancaster (Lou), also parting ways, possibly forever. Sally works as a waitress at a lobster bar, while training to be a blackjack dealer at a casino. She is the aspirational kind, who has escaped small town Canada, with dreams of living and working in Monaco. On the other hand, it is hard to tell what Lou does for a living. He seems to have retired from a nefarious past life, but still wants to hang on to whatever little glories it might have afforded him. Lou runs small-time numbers games as well as all kinds of errands for an old widow named Grace (a hilarious and energetic Kate Reid). All the while, he steals odd things from her and sells them for pocket change. It is hard to tell where his profession ends and his transgressions begin. Yet, he is not vile, which makes one almost imagine him making a lot more money, if he were not so nice or kind.
Amidst all their distractions and deviations, the film brings Sally and Lou together, thanks to chance and Lou's enterprise. They fall into some money, and also, supposedly in love.
Sometimes, the average joe doesn't do a lot with their lives that is radical, but, they still seek and receive excitement. This could be through predicaments: little, quaint, sudden, and unexpected. As such, "Certain Women" follows three women: a lawyer who has a disgruntled client who wouldn't listen to her advice, a homemaker with a disobedient daughter and a not-quite helpful husband trying to get her ideal home built, and a lonely rancher who falls for a teacher.
Some films, this one included, have a serene meditating nature to them, both in how they treat their subject as well as how they make the viewer feel. Their focus is entirely on the metaphorical landscape in which their plot is set. This then, becomes the focus of the viewer too. There is significant attention to the environment, its pace, the surrounding climate, and then, the people that occupy it. Within this setting, the film is content with watching its characters go about their daily business, doing what they would do on any non-descript day.
Falling in love is a reckoning of sorts: a stroll down a twisty trail. It begins with a silent curiosity for the other person, with everythig they do seemingly, a mystery. The infatuation then slowly kicks in, making the object of love seem larger than life, resplendent, and glorious. This might lead to self loathing, for the inadequacies and insufficiencies that are perceieved in oneself. Occasionally, there is anger and hatred, for a desire that's tangible yet out of reach.
And if paths were to align, there is consolation, and of course, passion and love: the hurried cascade of affection for the loved one, the myopic disdain for every other thing or person in the vicinity, the smudgy yet starkly distinct first moments of intimacy and lovemaking, the incessant wave of joy.
Atlantic City says so much about two people in a relationship, without saying too much.
A comedy that is fun, while being just good cinema in the first place.