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The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee featured image

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee
Rebecca Miller, director and writer. Starring: Robin Wright Penn (Pippa Lee), Keanu Reeves (Chris), Alan Arkin (Herb Lee), Julianne Moore (Kat), Maria Bello (Suky Sarkissian), Blake Lively (Pippa as a teenager), Monica Bellucci (Gigi Lee), Winona Ryder (Sandra Dulles)

The latest film from Rebecca Miller, the remarkably talented daughter of playwright Arthur Miller and photographer Inge Morath, is quirky, funny and occasionally tragic. Robin Wright Penn is sublime as Pippa, apparently the ultimate artist’s muse, who turns out to be a complicated, dramatic individual—not the beautiful cipher that the adoring males who surround her think she is. Alan Arkin, as her equally complex editor husband Herb, more than matches her: this role and Ms. Miller force him to show his full range as a performer.

We’re introduced to Pippa at a dinner party, which she’s throwing in the retirement community in Connecticut, where the Lees have retreated after Herb had suffered multiple heart attacks in Manhattan. The high-pressure life in New York’s artistic scene behind them, Herb seems to be doing well. It’s Pippa who is suffering: she’s way too young to be stuck in a neighbourhood filled with rich retirees.

Luckily, she meets her next-door neighbour’s son, Chris (Reeves), who is recovering from a bad marriage. As sparks begin to fly between the lady in mid-life crisis and the younger man dealing with burnout, flashbacks work their tricky magic on Pippa’s tale.

Moving backwards in time, we discover that the teenaged Pippa was a rebel, part of the drugs, sex and rock’n’roll generation of the dropout ‘60s and early ‘70s. That was when she met Herb, married at that time to the glamorous Gigi but open to a relationship with the troubled, attractive Pippa. Hardly an icon to conformity at the time, Pippa had already escaped a scene involving her lesbian aunt and dominatrix girlfriend before meeting Herb.

Back in the present, it turns out that all is not well in the marriage from Herb’s perspective either. He, too, has a relationship going on the side, with a family friend, Sandra (in a funny performance from Winona Ryder). At TIFF, Miller talked about Pippa being inspired by a woman she knows whose past is completely different from the persona she projects now. That mystery intrigued her.

A wily performance by Robin Wright Penn perfectly captures PIppa. But the film remains, like its real-life inspiration, an enigma. Pippa Lee is filled with wonderful characters and fine acting. But it’s “full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” We’re left with a charming shell of movie as the private lives of Pippa refuse to be illuminated.

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