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Fincher Moments: The Pure, Painstaking Romance in ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’

Many describe David Fincher as cold, but the scene when Benjamin and Daisy meet in the middle is anything but

Warner Bros. Pictures/Ringer illustration

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Se7en and the 10th anniversary of The Social Network, The Ringer hereby dubs September 21-25 David Fincher Week. Join us all throughout the week as we celebrate and examine the man, the myth, and his impeccable body of work.

Romance isn’t the first thing that the name David Fincher brings to mind. His work is more often characterized as dark, ingeniously twisted, even cold-hearted. What made Zodiac so striking was its almost neutral approach to its sinister topic, in line with the serious detective work that its protagonists engage in to try to catch the infamous serial killer. No surprise that the director eventually gave his take on the Scandinavian crime saga The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. But this calm and collected approach belies a genuine sensitivity and emotional intelligence. Even in Se7en, love was present and essential to the story’s darkness, hidden in a box that was much more than a simple piece of evidence. Some kind of love is also what drives Amy Dunne to trap her husband in an increasingly loveless marriage in Gone Girl. Although the director revels in humanity’s natural bend toward perversion, he understands that deviance isn’t all that interesting without the passion that often spawns it.

Sometimes, however, love remains pure and impervious to the corruption all around. 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Fincher’s most romantic film, isn’t about some guy insulting his girlfriend and then trying desperately to add her on Facebook like a 14-year-old; its hero isn’t a washed-up teacher who can’t help but sleep with one of his young students and ruin his wife and life, nor does he need a little push off a rooftop to feel alive again. Benjamin Button (played by a peak Brad Pitt, if you ask me) is a very nice guy who knows how to love a woman well; with his good manners and big heart, he couldn’t be further from a pervert. It’s his genetic makeup that’s gone wrong—a fact that makes Benjamin Button, as lovely as it is, Fincher’s most disturbing film, albeit in an unusual way for the director.

Benjamin was born to live life in reverse: coming out of his mother’s womb, he is already an old, wrinkly man. As he “grows up,” Benjamin gets physically younger, and at the end of his life, he looks like an infant but is also plagued with dementia and no longer able to talk. But there is a middle point, in which his appearance more or less matches his actual age and he is, for the first time, in line with the world around him. Most important, he is also finally in harmony with Daisy (Cate Blanchett), the love of his childhood and life. In a film so heavy with CGI (which is rather competent for 2008, making for perhaps more convincing aging and de-aging effects than in last year’s The Irishman), this brief moment of alignment brings the film back to a more natural and relatable place. The underlying narrative of Benjamin’s life, however, gives this encounter between the two lovers a resonance that is both otherworldly and all too real.

As Benjamin’s and Daisy’s different growing patterns separate them, so do their life paths. Like in a more traditional love story, the two lovebirds seem to always miss each other, if not always physically then at least emotionally: They want different things at different times, even as their ultimate goal is to be with each other. As a young woman, Daisy is set to become a great ballerina at the New York City Ballet and isn’t at a point in her life when a serious relationship is attractive to her; she pushes Benjamin and his moralistic advice away. This brutal rejection is the result not only of their difference in age—Daisy is young and ambitious and beginning to understand the power that her beauty gives her with men, while Benjamin is already more mature and lonely—but also, simply, of circumstances.

Yet all seems to fall into place once Benjamin and Daisy reach their 40s: They meet once again, and this time, try to live their love together. Because of Benjamin’s more appropriate physique and, certainly, thanks to the peacefulness that (some say) comes with middle age, their romance is more fulfilling than ever. They are happy. The ineluctable and, in their very specific case, particularly cruel passing of time seems to have been put on pause just for them.

“Wait … I wanna remember us just as we are now,” says Benjamin as he catches Daisy softly by the arm. But it’s their posture after that gesture, his arm around her shoulders as they look at themselves in the studio’s wide mirror, that makes this moment—and the film. Their complicity is finally plain to see: They’re no longer running after and then away from each other, and they’ve understood that in the whirlwind of their lives, they are each other’s best ally. They are also—quite literally—reflecting on their relationship and their seemingly unbreakable connection. They can see it now with their own eyes; their older age reminds them of how far they’ve come, sometimes apart but always somewhat together. Yet even as they look back at themselves and, through their appearing or disappearing wrinkles, their history, they are trying to stop time in its tracks and live in this perfect present. Observing their similarly aged bodies, they want to fix this image where time and space have finally, graciously reconciled. This very attempt, however, inevitably reminds them of its own futility: each new moment soon belongs to the past, and each second that passes brings them further apart from each other. This reflection in the mirror doesn’t only show them a fleeting moment of happiness: It contains a past they know too well, and a future they both expect and have no choice but to accept. Daisy turns her head to look at Benjamin directly, rather than through the mirror, and Fincher cuts to her close-up; already her face clouds as she returns to their unfair reality. Blanchett takes her gaze to the floor, her smile gone and her eyes filling up with fear. She turns back to the mirror, as though to check that this perfect moment hasn’t gone just yet. Benjamin hasn’t moved; he’s still here, for now, but certainly not for long.

Benjamin and Daisy’s race against time is not so different from the one that you and I are experiencing each day. Death is always around the corner and no one is spared life’s surprises and heartbreaks. But Benjamin’s approach to this unsolvable problem may offer some inspiration, if not answers. Whatever age he is at, he accepts its limitations and his advantage over it: as a young old man, he benefits from being treated like an adult, and as an aging child, he combines the wisdom he’s acquired through the years with the freedom of youth. Meeting midway with Daisy, he savors the moment fully, aware of its ephemeral nature but still grateful. Unlike her, he keeps his eyes on the picture of happiness that the mirror reflects back, determined not to lose a second of it and to help her accept the unacceptable.

Fincher himself seems puzzled by the passing of time—several of his films and TV productions (like the upcoming Mank) are set in the past, with an attention to historical accuracy that is comparable to his determination to get the best possible take of a scene. This tight grip on moments that have gone—each take is inevitably different!—recalls several of his darker characters. Amy Dunne approaches the transient nature of life—and love—with a hunger that is similar to Benjamin’s, but with a more forceful grasp: She refuses to accept the change that time has brought upon her marriage with Nick (Ben Affleck), slowly tearing it apart. Instead, she hangs on to romanticized memories, and seeks revenge for what she sees as time wasted being married to a man who didn’t fulfill his promise to never change. Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) in The Social Network realizes at the end of the film—and way too late—that what once was can no longer be. Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Zodiac and Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) in Mindhunter both get caught up in their investigations so much that they let their partners drift away, lost to the time that they forgot to spend with them.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is Fincher’s more optimistic (yet still devastating) view of the influence that time can have on love. Benjamin and Daisy grow increasingly aware of the preciousness of each minute spent together, and if at first that realization causes panic and creates distance between them, it eventually brings them closer—even if they have to end their relationship not as lovers, but as two people who simply continue to be present for each other, at any moment in time.