By Mark James.
Love is strange, and so is the real estate market these days, especially in New York. Love’s form can change along with the place and the people that house it. And so Love is Strange—director Ira Sachs’ and screenwriter Mauricio Zacharias’s second installment in a New York trilogy that began with Keep the Lights On—juggle’s these multiple unwieldy social formations while keeping its focus on a core story of an older gay couple whose marriage vows set forces in motion that eventually require them to live apart. Despite the complex plot, or because of it, the film succeeds in delivering a unique yet universal story of love happening in the context of real life. It’s also a moving portrait of a particular time in the arc of a relationship: a multi-tonal achievement on the level of Ozu’s Tokyo Story (which the director cites as a source of inspiration). This film is not just about social complexity and the emotional crampedness of multigenerational households, but just as much a story about cohabitation and romance.
The film populates its scenes with characters whose center of gravity remains independent, an equilibrium which serves to highlight the healthy state of their union. By staying respectfully intimate with so many plot elements and characters, Love is Strange grabs your attention and promises to stay with you for years to come. Like a houseguest of memory. The story commences with 70-something couple Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) marrying, formalizing an already 39 year long relationship. Family and friends gather to express admiration for the longevity and vitality of their bond; the two seem like a poster for gay marriage. Who could imagine that their romantic but also somewhat chaste union hasn’t earned them the right to enjoy legal recognition of their love? Why the Catholic Church, of course. George is a music director at a Catholic school, and soon after the ceremony, he loses his job.
Without that income, the mortgage on their Chelsea apartment is prohibitive and so they must sell, at a seemingly unrealistic break-even price. At this point, the plot starts to stretch as thin as their budget but things pick up, because until Ben and George can find more affordable quarters (why didn’t they consider Queens?), the elderly newlyweds must live apart. George gets the better deal, ending up on the couch of two hot young gay cops (Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez) — “the police women,” as he affectionately refers to the masculine duo. Ben finds himself across the river in Park Slope, crashing with filmmaker nephew Elliot and his novelist wife Kate and son Joey (Darren Burrows, a very good Marisa Tomei, and Charlie Tahan).
While the story of the unwanted houseguest has been the fluff of light comedy since Eurpides, Sachs and Zacharias just as often let the more serious derangement that can come with adding a new body to a typical New Yorker’s precisely-calibrated spatial organization unspool slowly. By tugging these two elderly amants apart, the plot injects some drama into what might otherwise be a difficult love story to find exciting. But it also serves to prevent the sexual aspect of their relationship from taking up too much screen time. Films depicting anyone over the age of 40 in a sexual light, let alone a man, let alone two gay ones, are incredibly few and far between, because it can so easily overtake every other aspect of the story by virtue of its novelty.
For Love is Strange, allowing the narrative to neatly sidestep what might otherwise had been clumsily explained away, works well. Focusing on the romantic, rather than the sexual, aspect of the relationship also brings the film into more palatable territory for a wider audience, meaning that the universal lessons of long-lasting love can be delivered through a more relatable vehicle. Sachs has been working at the forefront of narrative queer cinema for a while now, and with Love is Strange it is clear that his films can serve as turning points for the development of the genre.
Love is Strange is the kind of film whose radicalism might seem mundane, but which would have been unthinkable a few years ago. In a way, George and Ben live in very radical times. The post-gay matter-of-fact sexuality of the characters and the un-anguished way in which they avail themselves of help from family, friends and even the government represent a decisive break from the effects of being stigmatized, if not traumatized, only a decade ago. It’s an accurate depiction of gay life today, with both gay and straight friendships, families, and love stories interweaving in the shared fabric of New York.
Lithgow and Molina both deliver tender, exacting, Oscar-worthy performances, evoking the bone-deep rhymes and rhythms of a long-term relationship which still nurtures affection and is supple enough for growth and change. Molina in particular telegraphs the aches readily borne by a man in the throes of love, while Lithgow’s character is perhaps slightly less sympathetic, if no less relatable and certainly comedic. But out of such imperfections couples grow, and so Love is Strange is only enriched by these slight missteps. It is a testament to the entire ensemble, as well as the state of queer cinema as a whole, that Love is Strange is able to take a metered pace and risk small mistakes, because its maturity as a document of love is so self-assured.
This is a film made by someone in middle age, taking an assessment of his own life, and his empathy for all of his characters and their humanity is on display. It’s a remarkable, emotionally stable work. Sachs’ signature visual attentiveness doesn’t falter here either, calling on Greek cinematographer Christos Voudouris to compose exquisite, understated postcards of West Village streets and Park Slope roofs. One shot, in particular, will stick with you, revisiting a classic Bob Dylan album cover, but set later in life and at night and featuring our two older leads rather than heterosexual twenty-somethings. The substitution works because Sachs has reached the level of narrating universal themes through particular stories, the mark of a real artist.
Thus, Love is Strange compels one to talk about Sachs sharing space in a pantheon of sorts with Ozu, Rohmer, and Assayas, all of whom he is said to have drawn inspiration from for this film. But Sachs is his own filmmaker, and this work shows he has grown comfortable with his own unaffected, authentic style. The easy way with pacing, the curiosity with which he invites minor characters onto his screen, and the respect he grants his protagonists give the audience a lot of entry points into the story. And that is a good thing, because while love might indeed be strange, it is none the stranger for being gay. Sachs’ story of a couple that survives marriage and the loss of a house might just be the film to bring that point home, as it were.
Mark James lives in San Francisco and is a frequent contributor to Film International.