By: Tim Cogshell
Love Is Strange is beautiful in every way that a film can be beautiful, and unabashedly so. Yet, despite its willingness to gild the lily for love of ethereal, aesthetic beauty in all its forms, it is a film that reaches for the truth — the deepest truths of what we often call “the human condition.” For all these reasons I love Ira Sachs’ movie as much as it wishes we would love each other. I love the artistry of it. I love what it has to say and that it’s something seldom said. I love that it is forgiving.
Without hyperbole, I tell you that Love Is Strange is the stuff of Jean-Luc Godard (Notre Musique and In Praise of Love),Vittorio De Sica (Umberto D.), Woody Allen (Crimes and Misdemeanors), and Ingmar Bergman’s reflection on the ironic circumstances we find ourselves in as we age in his ever resonantWild Strawberries. Clearly, Bergman is a deeply planted influence on Sachs. And Love Is Strange is that good; I’m fairly sure most people — certainly those who’ve suffered from the many degradations of that “human condition” — will agree.
‘Old and gay and in love’
Love Is Strange is not just about being old and in love, which is plenty of fodder for a well-made film. Instead, the film is about being old and gay and in love. It’s also about gay marriage. And it’s about the vicissitudes of our universal human condition, particularly those that force apart a newly married gay couple after 35 years of being publicly together — and of being loved for their public togetherness. And finally, it’s about a bit more: family dynamics, youth culture, straight culture, gay culture, love, joy, and grief. Love Is Strange is all that, in addition to being beautiful in every way that a film can be.
Everything about Love Is Strange is “staged,” and wonderfully so. That includes the casting of two older straight men as two older, bordering on elderly, gay men — in itself as specific a choice as casting choices can be. After all, there are any number of older gay actors, some of them even movie stars, who might have been tapped for either of these roles — Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi come immediately to mind.
Director Ira Sachs is a gay man in his late 40s who has made films about and featuring gay men (e.g., The Delta, 1996; Keep the Lights On, 2012) as well as the mainstream 2007 drama Married Life, starring Chris Cooper and Pierce Brosnan; so, for Sachs, John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as a couple is a specific casting choice. That’s not because these well-known actors cast a wide net, but because they are straight performers playing gay characters, something less threatening to those few stragglers on issues regarding homosexuality and, frankly, something more interesting to those who are not.
Even the characters’ professions are part of the “staging.” Ben (John Lithgow) is a fine landscape and portrait painter while George (Alfred Molina) is a choral choir instructor and piano teacher; the latter loses his job at the private Catholic school after he and Ben marry. There’s also some “staging” for the aesthetics of the film: its deliberate, overwhelming beauty features lingering Manhattan skylines and wide shots of artworks, for we are meant to see art being created.
‘Love Is Strange’: Possible 2014 awards season contender
Much of the score in Love Is Strange is performed in real time, including a Chopin interlude performed from beginning to end by one of George’s students, a little girl. He makes her play it twice. No matter that her fingering is incorrect; no matter that the piece on the piano is not the piece we are hearing. This and other moments of lily-gilding are artistic license at best, bad continuity at worst — and in no way detrimental to the film. It’s all staged with precision and care by Sachs, cinematographer Christos Voudouris (Before Midnight), and production designer Amy Williams (Sachs’ collaborator on Keep the Lights On), and their work should be noted in the coming weeks as nominations for any number of awards are considered. This, also, is also not hyperbole.
Love Is Strange is a wonderfully hand-crafted film, which is to say, a film with a seldom-told story that is presented with great care. The writing, credited to Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias (another Keep the Lights On collaborator), is sparse and thoughtful, while its viewpoints are clear and present, among them a deep consideration of each moment and what is meant by that particular moment. In fact, Love Is Strange is a film that wants to win over not just its obvious audience, but all those stragglers as well. But it wants to do it in a fair manner, with beauty and truth.
John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, and Marisa Tomei are standouts
Everyone in Love Is Strange is at least good, including the young cast members, while several performances are especially good; a particular standout is Marisa Tomei, who sidesteps the trap of the “movie shrew” into which lesser actresses would have fallen. And then we have John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, who are flawless: perfect casting for the reasons noted above and pitch-perfect performances as well. In the opening frames of the film, we see Lithgow and Molina, two old white men, in bed together — something rarely seen in Hollywood movies — quietly waiting for their wedding day to begin. From these initial frames to the last scene, Lithgow and Molina are true in all their representations of Ben and George.
Sachs’ patient and deliberate orchestration of all of the crafts of cinema is deeply impressive. It bears repeating: Love Is Strange is beautiful in every way that a film can be beautiful. It is neither maudlin nor saccharine. It is without clichés. It lives in the “bitter and sweet” of the human condition. In sum, it is real. And for that, Ira Sachs may take the fullest credit.
Tim is Critic At Large for Alt Film Guide (http://www.altfg.com/blog/). Twenty years of his reviews are archived at: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/tim-cogshell/