Michael Knaapen

'Love is Strange' Movie Works on Many Levels

Filed By Michael Knaapen | October 02, 2014 1:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment
Tags: Alfred Molina, Catholic attacks on LGBT rights, Catholic Church, elderly gay couple, elderly gay men, film review, John Lithgow, Love is Strange, review

love-is-strange-poster.jpgLove is Strange is a delightful movie about love overcoming adversity. It crept into theaters at the end of August but hasn't received much attention despite its star power (John Lithgow, Alfred Molina), craftsmanship (superb), and timeliness (marriage equality and discrimination from the Catholic Church).

There's an easy, if cynical, explanation: the age of the stars (old), pace of the story (slow), and fickleness of the viewing public (Ugh, more stuff about gay people and their problems? Where are the swords and robots?).

Love is Strange may not suit the swords-and-robots crowd, but it has plenty to offer as entertainment and art. Director Ira Sachs is a naturalist -- a kind of David Attenborough of gay male relationships -- and here he takes audiences on an intimate journey of one couple's relationship, their trials, and ultimately their triumphs.

Like his 2012 film Keep the Lights On, Sachs's new film Love is Strange traces the ups and downs of a gay couple in New York City, with the city acting as a potent backdrop to much of the drama. Unlike the earlier film, which emphasized the challenges of young men finding and surviving love in the 1990s, Love is Strange focuses on Ben and George, two seniors who tie the knot after almost forty years together.

Upending the conventional fairy-tale wisdom, Ben and George's ever-after is anything but happy when George is fired by the Catholic school where he has taught music for years. The elderly newlyweds have to sell their apartment to make ends meet and end up crashing on the couches of friends and family. For anyone who regularly reads this site, you know that firing married gay employees is the hottest thing in religion-based bigotry at the moment, so the art-imitates-life-imitates-art factor is pretty strong.

Many leitmotifs effectively and beautifully enhance the drama. Art itself figures largely. For instance, Ben is a painter and one of his pieces - an unfinished portrait of a young man set against the New York cityscape - subtly indicates that youth is impermanent and skyscrapers are deceptive; only love can prevent against loneliness and help us feel connected.

love-is-strange.jpgMusic plays a pivotal role in the film, not only because the score complements the long pauses in dialogue, but because music is explicitly important to our protagonists. Much of the score consists of a single piano piece, Chopin's "Berceuse," Op. 57 in d-flat major, which, though brief and airy, creates nuanced emotional landscapes and thematic continuity.

It even steps out of the orchestra pit onto the stage when, at one point, Ben teaches the piece to a young private student. As she plays, a montage of daily life at Ben's old school rolls past, revealing the pressures and pleasures he has been robbed of; we hear Ben's voice reading a letter to the parents of his former students, urging them to create a more just world for their children. These are just two of the metaphors whispered throughout Love is Strange, the presence of which we feel more as visits from old friends than nagging sermons, but which remind us of the contingent nature of life.

Alfred Molina (George) and John Lithgow (Ben) are stellar actors, but these may be their very finest performances. Lithgow eschews every one of his popular and familiar mannerisms, including the humorous whimpers he scattered across his lines in 3rd Rock from the Sun and the vocal fry he deployed as countless villains in roles from Cliffhanger to Dexter. His Ben is a retired free spirit, charming, shaggy, well-meaning, and always a little reliant on George to make sense of the world around him.

Molina's George is mostly stoic, but his deep brown eyes give away worlds of passion, especially in their absolute adoration of Ben. Their chemistry is authentic and rich. Ben and George have known and loved each other so well and for so long that most of what goes on between them goes quite literally without saying - looks, gestures, silences. Together these arch-actors create the kinds of moments that movie lovers live for.

It is not a perfect film - dialogue by Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias is stiff at times, almost unworthy of the interpretive team, and only Marisa Tomei as the shallow spouse of Ben's nephew seems incapable of making a false step; the director's affinity for lingering sometimes seems like an act of habit rather than a conscious artistic choice; and there are even a few amateurish mistakes, like bad piano playing dubbing (Is it that hard to teach the actors, or hire actors who can actually play, or just keep the fingers out of the shot?).

love-is-strange-piano.jpgStill, Love is Strange has an unapologetic artistic quality and earnestness that asks us to set aside cynicism for 90 minutes. It attempts to say something more than swords and robots can about the nature of life and family, of family and commitment. It has the added bonus of highlighting the often neglected issues of LGBT elders who are often at greater risk for economic hardship, as well as the plight of LGBT Catholics who risk more than their favorite pew on Sunday morning when they muster the courage to live their lives authentically.

Despite the layers, the metaphors, the art-for-art's-sake heightened reality of it all, this film is remarkably uncomplicated. It promotes an optimistic worldview that love is vital, love is possible, love is powerful, and, yes, that love is strange.

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