BERLIN — With three films and a solo art exhibition, James Franco is present in Berlin this week in multiple ways, but that didn’t include the news conference for the premiere of “Maladies.” The film, the first feature-length effort from artist Carter, has ties to a previous collaboration, 2008’s "Erasing James Franco," a 63-minute art film that plays with performance and identity by having Franco re-act scenes from his own movies and others.
“Maladies,” written and directed by Carter, presents us with three troubled people — James (James Franco), Catherine (Catherine Keener) and Patricia (Fallon Goodson) — who share a house near the sea. James is troubled by disorder and soothed by the drone of a dial tone. He may be writing a book. His sister Patricia appears emotionally stunted, obsessively carrying twigs from place to place and combing her ratty wig. Catherine, the maternal figure of the group, is an accomplished artist who tolerates the others' quirks, as long as they don’t insult her own: dressing up as a man from time to time.
Their neighbor Delmar (David Straithairn) is a gentle busybody with a clear crush on washed-up actor James, who once acted in his favorite soap opera.
Those clips Delmar fondly watches might look familiar to some viewers: Though filtered through an old black-and-white set, they’re recognizable as bits of Franco’s stint on “General Hospital,” a bit of performance art Carter has previously claimed as his idea.
Drawing influences from "Grey Gardens," Robert Altman's film "3 Women" and 1950s instructional films (according to Carter), “Maladies” is anything but straightforward. Costuming and scenery seem to indicate we're in the early 1960s, but a TV playing scenes of the 1978 Jonestown massacre tells us otherwise, as does Keener's anachronistic affect. What seems to be a doctor’s voice adds commentary about James’ state of mind but also speaks directly to him. It’s meta, stagey and perhaps better suited to a museum than a movie theater.
Writing the film was a challenge for Carter, who had not worked with cinematic narrative before and had to learn the new language. “It’s more of a narrative now than it was in its first incarnation,” Keener said with a laugh at the film’s news conference. “At first it was ... more abstract. It had more rays coming out of it that weren’t really explained; they were just beautiful shafts of light. And now I think it’s sort of more contained in a way.”
Each of the three main characters is not quite well, but none more so than Franco’s whirlwind of ticks and tetchiness, James. James doesn’t have autism or schizophrenia, Carter said, but something much more conceptual.
“I went through the Diagnostic Survey Manual [actually the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders], which is the American Psychiatric Assn.’s manual listing of all mental illnesses and a description of them. And I thought it would be interesting to see what it would look like to have an actor be inflicted with every single one of them. Which is an impossible task. And we got the performance we did out of James.”
Additionally, he noted, while the character of Catherine may or not be gay (although Delmar clearly is), homosexuality was included in the DSM as an illness until 1974.
Berlin Franco-philes have had many reasons to rejoice — the multi-tasking actor has appeared on screen three times, all in the Berlinale’s Panorama section (the other two being his film with Travis Mathews, "Interior. Leather Bar." and Rob Epstein's "Lovelace"). Additionally, Franco’s solo art exhibition, called "Gay Town," has just opened at a temporary outpost of the city’s Peres Projects gallery.