erik lundegaard

Love is Strange
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Love is Strange (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Near the end of “Love Is Strange,” the slice-of-life indie directed by Ira Sachs, George (Alfred Molina), the longtime companion and new husband of Ben (John Lithgow), critiques a student’s classical music performance thus: “When a piece is that romantic, there’s no need to embellish it.”

He could be describing the movie.

Written byIra Sachs
Directed byIra Sachs
StarringJohn Lithgow
Alfred Molina
Marisa Tomei

Ben and George, a painter and a music instructor, have been living together for decades. As the movie opens (on a stockinged foot at the end of the bed), they are getting ready for another day. Ben slumps into the shower, they dress (necktie for George, bowtie for Ben), Ben can’t find his glasses. They talk to the housekeepers (Two of them? Are they preparing for a party?), then try to flag a cab on the streets of Manhattan. “We’ll have better luck on 6th,” George says. And off they go. To? A wedding. Theirs. It’s both another day and their wedding day. It’s a moment of triumph and celebration. Short-lived, it turns out.

George, you see, is a music instructor at Saint Grace Academy, where most folks, including Father Raymond (John Cullum), know he’s gay, know he lives with Ben, don’t care. But gay marriage? That’s toxic. Or political. And somehow (New York Times wedding page, maybe?) the Bishop finds out and George is fired. As a result, he and Ben can no longer afford to live where they live. As a result, they are forced to live apart.

The dramatist’s dilemma isn’t how to bring the lovers together but how to keep them apart for 90 minutes. Sachs’ approach here is novel. He keeps the lovers apart by marrying them.

No place

Question: Once it becomes apparent that the sale of their apartment won’t net them the income they need, why not just take the Poughkeepsie option? That’s where Ben’s niece, the brassy Mindy (Christina Kirk), lives, and she has room for both of them. But it’s not Manhattan. And the folks we saw at the wedding—friends and family—decide Ben and George need to live in Manhattan. So they divvy them up: George goes with the gay cops downstairs, Ben with his nephew Elliot (Darren E. Burrows of “Northern Exposure”), and his family—novelist wife Kate (Marisa Tomei), teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan)—across town. Ben gets the bottom bunk in Joey’s room. Tensions quickly fester.

Joey no longer has space, Kate no longer has space. (Tomei is excellent at being just this side of awful.) At first Ben is oblivious—going on and on in the living room as Kate tries to work on her second novel—and then painfully aware. He walks on metaphoric tiptoes. He paints on the roof of the apartment building, using Joey’s friend, Vlad (Eric Tabach), as a model, but this only makes Joey angry. When he comes home at night, Elliot and Kate are talking quietly (privately) in the living room, so he ducks into the bedroom—where Joey, hanging with Vlad, yells at him for not knocking. He has no place.

Neither does George. He’s with the hunky cops who are always partying, and he’s not a partier. One night he turns up rain-soaked at Elliot and Kate’s. For a moment, everyone’s surprised. Then he falls into Ben’s arms and sobs. It’s a powerful beautiful scene, and, per the above quote, unembellished. It just happens. It reveals, retroactively, all the tension and loneliness he’s feeling.

The movie is full of this kind of humanity. Another scene I loved: Joey and Ben talking at night in the bunkbeds. Joey, a kid without many friends, is still slightly angry at Ben, and possibly feeling guilty, too. Before going to bed, trying better to understand him maybe, Ben asks Joey if he’s ever been in love. Joey talks of seeing this girl on vacation one summer. He never spoke with her, he just saw her. She saw him, too. That seems key for him: being seen. He knows she lives in the city, too. “You should say hello,” Ben says matter-of-factly. That’s it. No resolution, no obvious epiphany. Just an ordinary scene that feels like everything.

Every place

Sachs, who co-wrote the movie with Mauricio Zacharias (“Madame Satã”), has a nice habit of transitioning weeks or months ahead without explanation. We figure it out by and by. Oh, they’re going to their wedding. Oh, Ben is living with them. The ending is this way, too.

After George finds them a nice, rent-controlled apartment, he and Ben celebrate at a local bar. They talk, comfortably. They walk down the street, comfortably, until they’re out of sight. You think that might be the end, but no. They talk before Ben takes the subway home. Apparently they haven’t moved in yet. Then we fade to black. Is that the end?

No. We see Joey waiting outside their new apartment, and George takes him upstairs. Joey admires the place, then apologizes for not being at the service. Service? Yes. Ben’s. Joey brings out a painting, Ben’s last, the one with Vlad on the rooftop, and he helps George hang it. Then he leaves. On the stairs down, he breaks down. Is he thinking about how he wasn’t that nice to his Uncle Ben at the end? How he called Vlad “gay” for posing for him? Or maybe he’s just feeling all that he’s lost? After 30 seconds or so, an eternity of screentime, he starts walking again, and one assumes that’s the end. No. The final scenes are Joey riding his skateboard around the more picturesque, treelined streets of Manhattan with a girl. The girl? The vacation girl? Did he finally say hello? Who knows? But at least he’s finally said hello to someone. And maybe he wouldn’t have without Ben’s bunkbed conversation. The things we leave behind.

“Love Is Strange,” despite the title, contains no Mickey and Sylvia on the soundtrack. Chopin piano pieces instead. Played without embellishment.

—September 15, 2014

© 2014 Erik Lundegaard

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