The elegantly decaying mansion in the Uruguayan countryside at the center of James Ivory's The City of Your Final Destination has the air of some French or British outpost in Vietnam or Africa in the dying days of a colonial empire. It's the kind of place that feels lost to time's march, a refuge but also a potential trap.
For the struggling 28-year-old academic Omar Razaghi (Omar Metwally), stepping out of his personal rat race into this paradise lost must be a relief. At the prompting of his ambitious, domineering girlfriend Deirdre (Alexandra Maria Lara), he travels to the Gund estate to secure permission to begin his road to a Ph.D. by writing a biography on the reclusive novelist Jules Gund, who wrote a single novel and died by suicide. Omar is undeniably a fish out of water about to be snared in the seductive net of this strange family and place.
At times, The City of Your Final Destination can suggest a kind of South of the Border Tennessee Williams with its comparable hot-house atmosphere. Gund has left behind a small colony of lovers and family: an unhappy wife Caroline (Laura Linney), a pure-of-heart mistress Arden (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and a silver-haired, idiosyncratic brother Adam (Anthony Hopkins), who lives on the Gund compound with his much younger Japanese lover Pete (Hiroyuki Sanada). The only hitch in this otherwise blissful depiction of gay coupledom is Hopkins' rather obvious discomfort every time he kisses Sanada.
The remaining Gunds have denied permission for a biography, but Omar is handsome and persuasive and has soon charmingly insinuated himself into the rhythms of the Gund way. A subtle feminine war unfolds, as the earthy Arden — wearing rubber boots and sundresses — vies with the immaculately groomed, refined but deeply contrarian Caroline for Omar's attention. A bewitching vapor hangs over the proceedings, and the longer Omar stays, the more these people begin to fascinate him, perhaps even more than the prospect of immortalizing Jules. Rather than recording an author's life, Omar begins to live it, immersed in this world of intriguing people and strange circumstances. In many ways Ivory's navel-gazing film seems to articulate the magic spontaneity and immersive creativity of a film set, in which a detached artistic enterprise can suddenly become all-consuming.
For Omar, the ostensible purpose of his visit, the biography, becomes secondary to the proposition this Uruguayan paradise offers. His life's path seems to split like a forked road before him: on one hand the academic rigor of vicariously living through others' experiences ("You probably just read criticism" Adam sniffs of Deirdre's limited imagination) played out in classrooms full of apathetic students on the bleak campus of Kansas University. Omar and Deirdre are noticeably abstemious, at various occasions refusing alcohol and meat and burdened with fears and anxieties that speak to the stresses of their lives. The City of Your Final Destination is clear on one count. Ivory does not imagine the Academy as a rewarding, life-embracing creative hub.
Uruguay and the Gunds represent a very different option, full of wild, natural beauty and bright, eccentric people who fester and drink and expound too much but seem far more vivid and alive than the career-minded world represented by chilly Deirdre.
Like so many James Ivory-directed and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala-written (adapting a novel by Peter Cameron) productions, The City of Your Final Destination lives and dies on the force of its cast. Ivory has assembled a powerhouse, multigenerational group, aided and abetted by a setting with a distinctly theatrical feel.
The City of Your Final Destination doesn't astound or surprise in any significant way. Instead, it is a quietly revealing film of small-scale, subtle rewards.