By Jacob Mertens.
In the opening moments of Mike Mills’ Beginners we see a vase of dead flowers against a dirty kitchen window. The camera is tight, shallow focus, not letting the room breathe. The film cuts to Ewan McGregor’s character Oliver wandering through a near empty house. He dumps an obscene amount of medication into the toilet, goes through the straggled boxes of personal affects. The driveway holds the contents of the house, a giant heap of worldly possessions reduced to refuse. Within these first few frames, we are given an incredibly specified and honest portrayal of the impact of death: the obliteration of what was once a warm and lively home.
From the opening sequence, the audience easily assimilates the tone of mute grief. It would be simple to carry on this way, to get at the source of the sorrow and let the movie stand as it is. Instead, Beginners becomes an odd, Dr. Jekyll creation that somehow manages to find harmony and balance between the two films it wants to be. Oliver is coping with the loss of both his parents and the realization that his father was gay the entire time they were married. His father Hal, played marvelously by Christopher Plummer, embraces his homosexuality after the death of his wife. He bursts with renewed life force, finds himself a young boyfriend, gets involved in social causes, becomes the epicenter of warm social gatherings, and dies of cancer five years later. We see these events as flashbacks, just as we see Oliver as a child clinging to his mother. Oliver absorbs her pain and sadness, which is neatly encapsulated by an observed and off beat sequence of his mother and father kissing over and over.
Here we note the influence of the past on Oliver. He has spent years of his life unconsciously processing his mother’s repressed regret and frustration, and now must try to accept his father for the person he only recently has had the courage to be. Meanwhile, the senseless disease that took his mother now sets its cold gaze on Hal. The audience comes to understand Oliver’s dry, minimal aspersions of the arbitrary cuteness of Jack Russell Terriers and his comically morbid cartoon drawings as the film’s attempt to make his gloom accessible. Similarly, we see cute indie-film visual quirks, like giving the dog subtitles, which would feel like a gimmick in another film but here only accentuates recurring themes of loneliness and distress.
It is while the film is establishing all this that a second narrative strand forces its way through, destroying everything in its path, and we find ourselves in the middle of a love story. Oliver meets Anna, played by Inglourious Basterds’ (2009) Mélanie Laurent, under circumstances that could again seem solely calculated for effect if not for the clever and understated way the information is revealed. Oliver, moping about in his studio and drawing talking bubbles over cartoon decapitated heads, is dragged to a costume party by his friends. He shows up as Sigmund Freud and begins to playfully analyze members of the party on a couch in the living room. Anna quickly takes her place on the couch, though she has laryngitis and cannot speak. Appropriately dressed as Charlie Chapman, she begins her tête à tête with Oliver by writing in a small notepad. It is all perfectly adorable but the flirting is immediately halted when Anna asks Oliver why he looks so sad. When asked how she could tell, she draws his eyes. The exchange only lasts a moment, and soon Oliver is getting her a drink and asking her to dance, but now the way he sees Anna and the way the audience sees the two of them is altered. The relationship that follows is not founded by how they met but by Anna’s delicate and keen insight of Oliver’s grief.
The sequence between the two characters suggests a subtle writing instinct, and it is this reason that Mills’ unwieldy dualistic narrative manages to work. When Oliver begins courting Anna, there is very little within surface plot elements that suggest conflict; it’s sweet and affecting, but without conflict the audience loses urgency. However, through flashbacks we are reminded of Oliver’s incomplete and contradictory notions of love and commitment, and we feel the doom that is imminent. To put it simply, the story told in flashbacks becomes both directly and indirectly part of the love story at present. Oliver must then resolve his feelings towards his parents, while managing to not push Anna out of his life.
To be honest, the film is a mess. It jumps periodically from the present to the past, it incorporates odd stylistic devices that in another film would seem trite, and yet it manages to harness genuine emotion in a way that few films ever stumble upon. It’s an ambitious work, and it occasionally gives the impression of trying to do too much, but it’s so earnest that it’s difficult not to love.
Jacob Mertens is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
Read Janine Gericke’s review of Beginners here.