The word "pretentious" gets batted around a lot by people who don't use it correctly. It does not mean, "This work of art requires that you think a lot, and it probably isn't much fun to watch it, so only arrogant people and posers will claim to like it." It means, "This work of art believes that it is much smarter than is actually the case. It has pretensions to being something that it is not, namely intelligent. In fact, it is ponderous and a monkey could probably understand it." And by this latter definition, The Life Before Her Eyes is an flawless example of a pretentious movie. It is full of fussed-over significant images and a bevy of delicately planned interlocking narrative motives, and it's about as subtle and clever as somebody clubbing you over the head with a folding chair.

It's immediately obvious, in the opening credits (bad opening credits are like seeing your ex at a party: you know instantly that the whole evening is going to suck, and you can't do anything but sit there and squirm). Several images of flowers are morphed into essentially identical images of the same flower, in slow motion, and it looks like a late-'90s screensaver, and the film just seems to be mocking you in a smooth baritone voice. "There shall be Flower Symbolism," the movie chuckles. "Flowers are going to be important for this movie, so let me show you flowers in the most aggressively smug way I possible can."

The film, adapted from a well-received novel by Laura Kasischke, concerns a woman named Diana at two times in her life. As a 17-year-old, Diana is portrayed by Evan Rachel Wood as a freethinking outsider in a snug, gossipy suburb in Connecticut; 15 years later, she is played by Uma Thurman as a worn-out member of that same community, tired of hanging on to ancient traumas and finding it hard to keep her life together when her 8-year-old daughter starts to exhibit behavior not at all unlike her own antisocial adolescence. (Incidentally, though Wood and Thurman don't look very similar, the casting is still a masterstroke. At 37 - today makes it 38, and Happy Birthday, Uma - , Thurman is believable as a 32-year-old whose life has been particularly rough for the past decade or so).

There's a linchpin event that connects these two variations of a single person, and it's the massacre that happens just a few days before the end of the year at Diana's highschool, leaving her favorite teacher and best friend dead. It just so happens that we meet up with Older Diana the week of that event's 15th anniversary, and the dormant memories that get kicked up are enough to drive her into a proper crisis of identity, whereupon she spends most of the film flashing back to the events that made here the person that she is today, and finding very little to be proud of in her behavior at either age.

So far, I don't suppose it sounds all that pretentious, does it? And it's really not the story's fault that the movie goes so hopelessly awry, although the manner in which Diana's youth and Diana's adulthood are shown to interlock is needlessly deterministic (my particular favorite: a scene in which she meets a fellow parent named Amanda, upon which point the movie feels compelled to flash-back so that we understand that she's known Amanda since Those Days, even though Amanda - at either age - will only appear once more in the film). And the ending, which is a surprising ending that somehow doesn't come across as surprising at all, and has had many clues littered throughout the preceding 80 minutes, is not the kind that makes us re-evaluate what we have just seen, but makes us wonder if there was any reason to bother watching at all. This is the stuff of a failed movie, not an actively disagreeable one.

Trouble starts to really creep in when debuting writer Emil Stern makes sure to include some very portentous symbolic dialogue. Sometimes, as in the statement that the heart is the strongest muscle in the human body, this is cloying and cutesy. But there's also a seemingly tossed-off line about how the human body is 72% water, and this leads to a collection of water imagery that makes the flower imagery seem positively restrained by comparison. And when you really sit down and pick it apart, that doesn't make much sense. Since humans are mostly water, showing Evan Rachel Wood's hair drifting slowly in a swimming pool means...? Incidentally, Wood is sexualised to an incredible degree in this movie; I cannot think of another film featuring that actress that was so eager to keep showing us her naked flesh in such detail.

Director Vadim Perelman, making his second film after the similarly ponderous House of Sand and Fog, has a gay old time coming up with unmotivated insert shots of beautiful images that are at once threatening, most of which are somehow related to death or water or flowers, or in a shot that should really be on the DVD cover, dead flowers in a vase of stagnant water. All of these images are terribly beautiful, and I mean that in the most denotative sense of "terribly"; there's never any mistaking that these images are Profoundly Important and Dramatic, and they are all as lovely as a postcard. I guess that's the reason you hire Pawel Edelman as your cinematographer, but somehow I just wasn't ready for the sheer glut of angsty gorgeous things. Particularly during the school shooting, when a dead body on the gym floor is lit by the truly stunning shafts of dusty light coming from a skylight, prettier than you could possibly stand. It's the sort of unspeakably lovely gawking light that even a notorious cinematic gawker like Steven Spielberg only uses for incredibly significant once-per-movie moments,. Perelman and Edelman use it to show off a dead body. This is at the very least a weird contrast of mood and style.

With literally every shot in the film so magnificently fussed-over for maximum brow-furrowed seriousness, everything else is kind of swallowed up, but it wouldn't do to fail to mention that Wood is exceptionally good in this film. She's a good actress pretty much always, but except for a few moments of clunky body language early on, this is as fine as anything she's ever done. She's a very naturalistic actress, all about living in the tiny moments rather than humping the Oscar clips, and given that her half of the story is comprised of virtually nothing but tiny moments, it's actually a great role for her to play. Thurman - an actress I love heart and soul, really I do - is given nothing to work with, and thus she does nothing with it.

So the film is basically an orgasm of dramatic moments. I'm at a loss to think of anything recent, or really anything ever, to hit a similar fever pitch wherein every damn beat of the story is so laden down with frowny-faced seriousness, nor where such incredible strain is exhausted to pepper the whole film with so many obvious loose details that exist just so we can be impressed when they are tied up into an incredibly overdetermined whole. So mirthless is The Life Before Her Eyes about the very serious business of being very serious in every frame that I have only one form of recourse: I must conclude that is in fact a parody of heavy drama, and therefore the hilarious excesses of its style really are hilarious, and not just pitiful.