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Film Reviews: Robot Dreams & Longing

Arts Review2024-6-7By: Marc Glassman


Memories are Made of This

Robot Dreams & Longing

By Marc Glassman


Robot Dreams

Pablo Berger, director & script based on the graphic novel by Sara Varon


It’s rare to see an independent animation feature film being made, let alone become an international success. That’s why Pablo Berger’s Robot Dreams is so extraordinary. Not only did he make something beautifully animated without a superhero as the star or the support of Disney or Spielberg, but he actually created a genuinely affecting story of love and friendship within the guise of a funny animal science fiction tale. And, to top it off, it has a wordless narrative while featuring a disco tune, “September,” by Earth, Wind and Fire that ought to be outlawed for its annoying catchiness—and incessant query “do you remember?”

Before you decide that this review is satirical or some sort of arcane joke, here’s the list of Robot Dreams’ awards: Best Film (Contrechamp Prize) at the prestigious Annecy (France) International Animation Festival; the Goya Award (in Spain) for Animation Feature (and Adapted Screenplay and Editing); the European Film Award for Best Animation; and the Film Critics’ Awards for Best Animation from Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco; San Diego; London and Toronto (and, yes, I did vote for it.)

Why does Robot Dreams work—and should you watch it?

Let me start answering the questions with a question: how often do you watch a film or a TV show and really care about the characters? Not that often—right? Berger asks you to care about the relationship between a dog and a robot—both animated, of course—and this critic, like so many others, ended up practically in tears over their friendship. That takes true artistry, requiring great storytelling, character design, music, and compelling scenes. Pablo Berger never forgets that his characters are funny, but he makes you like them a lot.

Robot Dreams is set in Manhattan—a locale filled with stores like Strand’s “8 miles of books,” pizza joints like the ever-tasty Vesuvio’s, and all kinds of small shops where you can buy hardware or sell scrap iron. Dog, our protagonist, is your typical sad sack, a lonely guy watching TV, playing games for way too long while eating mac and cheese. He needs a companion and finds one with a Robot, who he purchases and assembles—and turns out to be a quiet charmer. 

The film indulges in a lovely set of scenes where the two friends experience Manhattan as if they’re in love: everything is pristine and enchanting and effortlessly enjoyable when encountered. One glorious day, the last of the summer, Dog and Robot go to the beach to have the best possible afternoon. They swim underwater, they plunge in and out of the ocean with new friends and they stay way too long. When it’s time to leave, Robot can’t move. He’s rusted solid. Despite his best efforts, Dog can’t move him, and no one will help. He has to abandon his immobile friend on the beach and when he leaves, the gates are locked behind him. The summer is over, and the beach won’t reopen until the beginning of June. 

Robot Dreams plays out the separation of the two friends in wonderfully imaginative ways. Robot keeps on imagining being freed through a heavy injection of oil and, in the best of his fantasies, he dances Gene Kelly-style through a field of flowers—truly magical! —but ends up, always, frozen on the beach. Dog has a mischievous Halloween, scaring and being frightened by the local kids, goes bowling—and, in the liveliest sequence meets a feisty lady Duck, who flies kites with him but then, suddenly, leaves for Barcelona.

Narrative expectations being what they are, any engaged audience member will suspect that something dreadful is going to happen—too much time has transpired for something as simple as Dog turning up with oil for his pal, Robot, to take place. Sure enough, events conspire to keep the two apart on a nearly permanent basis. As if we’re watching an opera, the two find other partners and become somewhat different characters. But will they find each other again? Or will the memory of their friendship sustain them?

Plots can be heavy handed! Much of Robot Dreams is funnier and more effervescent than the film’s narrative twists suggest. What remains true is a sense of loneliness and solitude throughout the film that feels like the condition one too easily experiences in Manhattan. It makes the separation of the two friends so difficult to bear—and so compelling to watch.

Pablo Berger has assembled a great team of animators, technicians, and musicians to make this extraordinary film. Rarely has Manhattan been so wonderfully described. Though the characters are animals—ducks, raccoons, dogs—the design of the city is precise and realistic. Downtown New York is brought to life in all of its glory, and grittiness. Robot Dreams is about many things, including a lovely evocation of Manhattan. 

It’s a pleasure to recommend Pablo Berger’s genuinely unique film. Robot Dreams is a strange and delectable treasure. 



Savi Gabizon, director, and script

Starring: Richard Gere (Daniel Bloch), Diane. Kruger (Alice), Suzanne Clement (Rachel), Jessica Clement (Lillian), Tomaso Sanelli (Allen), Larry Day (Jacob), Wayne Burns (Mikey)


Remaking foreign language films can be problematic. What works well to an educated audience when reading subtitles and hearing an unusual dialect may ring false when rendered into English. Then there’s the question of locale: are you more interested in a film set in Stockholm or Paris or Tel Aviv as opposed to Hamilton or Toronto? And then there’s the all-important issue of casting. How often does the triumph of a sensitive film rely on the proper actor in the lead role—a Mifune or a Jeanne Moreau or a Mastroianni—delivering a devastating performance? 

There’s much time to ponder those questions while viewing the slow paced Canadian version of the Israeli art house hit Ga’agua now entitled Longing. Back in 2017, when auteur writer-director Savi Gabizon released the original film, it won the People’s Choice Award at the Venice Film Festival and the Audience Award in Jerusalem. It clearly feels very different now, in a version set in Hamilton and starring Richard Gere. What must have been moving and funny in Hebrew to audiences back then feels awkward and too on-the-nose in this English language adaptation. And what was startling less than a decade ago doesn’t feel as compelling anymore.

The premise of Longing is still upsetting. Gere, a successful New York businessman named Daniel Bloch, meets Rachel (a persuasive Suzanne Clement), his old flame from 20 years ago for lunch only to be told that she had been pregnant when they broke up and she’s raised their son without telling him. Worse—their boy, Allen, has just died in a car accident so he’ll never be able to even meet him. By the time Rachel leaves, Daniel is bereft—he’s gained and lost a son in less than an hour.

Longing is like that: a series of psychodramas that doesn’t work logically but, at their best, they do emotionally. It didn’t make sense for Rachel to tell Daniel about their son after he was gone, but she did. His response is a bit more likely, deciding to travel to Hamilton, where he had lived, to attend the funeral. What he finds out there follows a “yes, but” pattern: Daniel discovers great things about Allen but a lot of negatives, too. Through his best friend Mikey, Daniel hears about Allen’s accomplishments as a pianist, but it turns out he was making money dealing drugs. He meets Lillian, Allen’s girlfriend but discovers that his son was obsessed with his French teacher. Astonishingly, Allen had written an erotic poem in French on the wall of his high school, but it got him expelled. 

What should he make of his son? Daniel insists on developing a tenuous friendship with Alice, Allen’s beautiful French teacher. In the most intriguing section of the film, Gere’s Daniel gets to know Diane Kruger’s Alice and what we encounter is an even match: two internationally acclaimed actors justifying their strange characters, a teacher trying to deal with an infatuated student and a father attempting to understand his son. It’s very well played out but—and there’s always a “but” in this film—we discover that Alice took out a court order against Allen because even she couldn’t ultimately deal with his over-the-top love for her.

Longing moves to the totally bizarre as the film reaches its conclusion. In his increasingly frequent visits to Allen’s gravesite, Daniel has become friendly with Jacob, who is visiting his daughter, a gifted redheaded violinist who committed suicide when she was 18. The stage is set for the strangest of endings: a celebration of these two young people, gone too soon, attended by their extended families. It may not be a wedding, but the party is the closest either will ever have for that kind of loving release.

What are we to make of Longing? It’s certainly one of the strangest films of the year—and it’s only June. Does it work? Not really. Richard Gere tries his best, but he can’t bring the passion or humour necessary to make his character, Daniel, all that compelling. Kruger is great but she’s only in part of the movie; the same goes for Clement. We’re left longing for the film that might have been—or perhaps was, in Hebrew.



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