Sunday 11 November 2018

From the archive: "Love is Strange"

The writer-director Ira Sachs has emerged over the past decade as one of the American independent sector’s finer sensibilities. His gift is for detailed character pieces possessed of a rare emotional half-life: you’re often unaware that anything extraordinary is unfolding while watching his films, but can find yourself standing on the street in floods of tears fifteen minutes after leaving the cinema, and thinking about the fates of his characters for days, weeks and months afterwards.

The dependency issues that formed a subtext of 2012’s tremendously moving Keep the Lights On, an account of a doomed love affair between a filmmaker and a recovering drug addict, are promoted to centre stage in Sachs’ latest Love is Strange, another quiet miracle that acknowledges gay marriage is now a generally recognised thing, but goes on to ask a crucial question both of us and its characters: what next?

The honeymoon of four-decade lovers Ben and George (John Lithgow and Alfred Molina) is barely over when the latter loses his job teaching music at one of New York’s Catholic academies, forcing the pair to revise their living arrangements. With Ben on a pension, and rent what it is, they elect to split up and stay with loved ones while waiting for George to land another gig. The union sealed, they’re thus forced apart; like the couple in 1937’s enduring Make Way for Tomorrow, they end up trying to sustain their love by any means – late-night calls, weekend visits – in the face of supremely testing circumstances.

On the face of it, Love is Strange is as jerry-rigged by its casting as Two Days, One Night was by the casting of lovely Marion Cotillard: only a total grouch – or the worst kind of bigot – wouldn’t want cuddly old Lithgow and Molina to regain their happiness. Yet from the uncommon attention Sachs pays to members of the wedding party, right through to the closing shots, in which the movements of two minor characters speak eloquently and indelibly for the whole, the film keeps searching out other perspectives on this relationship.

Ben and George aren’t a burden on their new hosts, exactly – they’re cultured good company – but, removed of their rightful context, they can sometimes resemble a pain in the arse and a stick in the mud respectively: Ben, squeezed into his nephew’s bunkbed, blustering insistently through old-timey anecdotes he can’t recall the punchlines for, the domesticated George suddenly out of place in the kind of bachelor pad he thought he’d surely left behind.

Maybe it’s a felicitous consequence of shooting on a shoestring budget, but Love is Strange stands one of too few latter-day movies to address just how punishingly small inner-city domiciles can be: its locations barely have space for the busy, complicated lives they were already housing, let alone the lives of others. (Sachs and cinematographer Christos Voudouris make something especially poignant from the sight of greybeard Ben exiled to his keepers’ rooftop, trying to find the inspiration and space to pursue his passion for paint.)

Nothing here has been scaled up, no strain made for effect; Sachs holds to George’s verdict on one string concerto – “When the piece is that romantic, there’s no need to embellish it” – even as he allows Ben to contradict it in the very next line. (Opposites, after all, attract.) George’s vocation permits a wistful smattering of Chopin to accentuate the action, but every economical interaction adds depth and shade: we’re drawn into these lives, such that the coda can have a flooring impact while making no more fuss on the surface than a man might make about crossing the road.

As a dramatist, Sachs is no Tennessee Williams – he’s too level-headed for that, his scripts small marvels of even-handedness – but he’s similarly alert to the myriad, often mysterious ways we can rub against and off on one another. Love is Strange, his latest triumph, senses that – wherever we are, whosoever we love, whatever freedoms we might claim – we are as reliant as ever on the kindness and tolerance of those who surround us.

(MovieMail, February 2015)

Love is Strange screens on Channel 4 tonight at 12.45am.

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