Spielberg’s film opens and closes with scenes devoted to cinema.
In the opening scene, little Samuel, Spielberg’s alter ego, then aged five or six, is threatened with going to the cinema, which, visibly, constitutes an ordeal for him. The little boy cries in front of the cinema entrance, because for him, going to see a film in a large, dark room is too much emotion.
He is afraid of what he sees on the screen, he is afraid that the emotions he will feel will be too strong, that they will carry him too far.
As always in this type of situation, parents try to reassure their child, saying that everything will go well, that they have nothing to fear. And yet, it is what will happen in this dark room which will trigger both the story of the film, and young Sammy/Stevie’s passion for cinema.
The remarkable final scene allows, for its part, not so much to close the story, but to open it to something else: it is a new part of Samuel’s life which then begins, it is therefore perfectly legitimate to end this movie here.
These two scenes frame a story which is therefore, strictly speaking, not a film about the life of young Samuel, but about cinema, an immense tribute to an art which will become a devouring passion, and to its links with life real. This is why The Fabelmans is a fascinating film.
Cinema therefore has several roles in this film.
First of all, it is a passion that will invade Samuel’s life. After the opening scene, where the family went to see Under the Largest Big Top in the World, by Cecil B. DeMille, the boy will be literally obsessed with a scene from the film, that of the train derailment. Obsessed to the point of trying to reproduce it with the little electric train that we gave him for Hanukkah.
Samuel discovers the capacity of the 7th art to give rise to emotions, but also to inscribe in us obsessive images, which will mark us forever.
The only way Samuel will have to free himself from these images will be to reproduce them. But even this will become disappointing: Samuel will not be able to reproduce this scene endlessly, the train having been confiscated by his father’s authority.
It is therefore through cinema that Samuel will free himself from the emotions linked to this scene: by reproducing it, filming it and replaying it over and over again. Cinema then appears as what allows an artist to express his emotions, but also to free himself from them, to free himself from them.
The cathartic power of the 7th art is highlighted here, and it will come up several times in the film.
This is how Samuel’s passion for cinema and his desire to tell stories was born. The Fabelmans will then be punctuated with reproductions of amateur films that the young Spielberg had made during his youth. A passion that, as it should be, his father, too scientific, underestimates: a simple hobby which should not prevent his film from doing something serious.
However, cinema is a combination of the father’s interests and the mother’s psychology: the maternal artistic sensitivity and the father’s interest in technology.
But the major difference between father and son is that Samuel found a means of expression with cinema. Many times, we see an awkward father, not knowing how to express himself. A father who seems to have difficulty really finding his place in society.
He is only comfortable when talking about computers, but he is awkward with everything else, especially expressing his feelings. He doesn’t even seem to know how to cuddle his son. Cinema then appears as a means of expression, as a space in which Samuel can express what he feels.
We can never say it enough: Paul Dano is an exceptional actor. He gives us further proof here by delivering a subtle interpretation, portraying a fragile character. This notion of fragility runs throughout the work. Fragility of a father who is awkward, clumsy, and never seems to be in his place.
Psychological fragility of a mother who constantly seems to be in an unstable balance on the edge of the abyss. Fragility of a couple which is constantly threatened: threatened by the father’s work which requires him to move regularly, threatened by this “uncle” Ben and his attraction to the father.
Fragility of family happiness always liable to be shattered. In this game, Michelle Williams is extraordinary. I admit that I had always underestimated this actress, who reveals great acting quality.
In this world of fragility, in this life of a family which gradually reveals itself to be on the edge of the abyss, the only stability for Samuel comes from the cinema. It is the amateur practice of the 7th art which gives the boy his strength and allows him to go through the trials of his daily life.
Better: only the practice of cinema constitutes progression in the film, the films he makes improve and become more ambitious each time.
Passion for art quickly appears to be essential in the family. We have the pianist mother, but also and above all this uncle, who arrives from who knows where just for the duration of a little scene (a bit telephonic, it must be admitted).
An uncle who comes from the world of the circus (another reference which refers to Under the Largest Big Top in the World, the seminal work of Spielberg’s film) and which allows us to highlight the image of the artist-acrobat, an image which under -tends the entire film. Between the bohemians and the amateur director tinkering with his film in his bedroom, there are no differences.
Cinema also serves as a connection to reality, whether to get closer to it, to become aware of it, or to move away from it, to protect oneself from it.
Thus, it is in a scene worthy of De Palma that young Samuel makes a discovery concerning his mother. This sequence where he discovers the more than likely relationship between his mother and “Uncle Ben” seems directly taken from Blow Out.
But cinema also allows Samuel to escape reality. It is a reassuring world that protects against various challenges. So, after the dramatic announcement made by the parents in California, Sam’s only reaction is to isolate himself to edit the film about truancy.
In short, more than a film about the life of a character, more than a film autobiography, The Fabelmans is above all a tribute to cinema. It is a film about cinema, its place in Spielberg’s life, but also about the role of cinema as artistic expression, with all that that implies: entertainment, way of looking at the world, means of expressing emotions, of search for truth, etc.
Each sequence of the film is linked to the cinema and makes Samuel progress in his path as a filmmaker (with this usual fault of biopics which, offering a retrospective look, make one believe that the characters are destined to become what they have become, that the path is logical and the result inevitable). Closing such a film with the scene of the meeting with John Ford,