Love is Strange Enchanting Aria to Life’s Enigmatic Complexity
Love is Strange is a charming, bittersweet drama that enchants even when it is breaking your heart in two. The story of two elderly New Yorkers, High School music teacher George (Alfred Molina) and renowned painter Ben (John Lithgow), who finally marry after 39 years lying within one another’s arms, the movie is a quietly profound aria to love, loss, family and unforeseen traumas that is as eloquent as it is profound. It moves to its own rhythms and designs, never rushing things yet hardly slow, the film’s 94 minutes over almost as soon as they begin.
Things start in a euphoric manner, George and Ben’s nuptials leading to a day of celebration too long in coming. But the Catholic School where the former works isn’t as happy, and although they’ve known George was gay for the entirety of his tenure the fact he’s finally made it legal doesn’t sit well with the institution the beloved educator suddenly given his walking papers. Unable to afford their lavish New York apartment the pair, together for almost four decades, are now practically homeless, each forced to reside separately on the couches and bunk beds of family members as they attempt to search for a new place inside the city to plant roots and call their own.
Director Ira Sachs, co-writing with Keep the Lights On collaborator Mauricio Zacharias, doesn’t over-sentimentalize the proceedings, refusing to allow melodrama or treacle to leach inside the narrative at any point. He presents things matter-of-factly, as they are, and even though cinematographer Christos Voudouris (Before Midnight) gives his images an old school, almost Technicolor sheen the overall tone is virtually documentary-like in its exactitude. Everything is presented with measured grace, character and emotion crafted with precision each moment leading to the next with mesmerizing simplicity.
Molina is magnificent. His reaction when his school lets him go is devastatingly personal, an answer to a question wondering if his firing will lead to him questioning his faith hitting home in such a forceful yet intimate manner tingles went up and down my spine. The veteran actor navigates the proceedings with self-effacing confidence, and whether smiling through heartache, giggling through absurdity or sighing through hardship there’s never a moment that feels forced or false. More, his chemistry with Lithgow is off the charts, the two presenting their relationship as-is and without any unnecessary embellishments.
Lithgow is also very good but I can’t say his performance moved near as much as his counterpart’s. Still, he has some achingly sublime moments, not the least of which is a tableside conversation with his niece-by-marriage Kate (superbly underplayed by Marisa Tomei) over the use of the word ‘gay’ by her teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan). There’s also a fantastic montage near the end between he and Molina that had my heart doing blissful summersaults, the moment ending in a scene of bittersweet separation that the actor portrays marvelously.
But it is how Sachs and Zacharias make these events so achingly believable that allows the film to resonate as deeply and as profoundly as it does. While initially the idea and concept seems absurd, as things progress the situation George and Ben find themselves in makes more and more sense. The craziness of life, the complexities it conceals only to unleash chaos at the most unforeseen of instances, all of this and more ebbs and flows like an omnipresent sea stretching long into the horizon hiding its turbulence in a serene, wave-free façade.
Everything builds to a scene between George and Joey that stopped my breath in its tracks, the two speaking volumes even though the words they’re saying are relatively few and even further between. They share a moment of heartache and understanding; grief transforming into joy with the promise of new affairs and opportunities hidden in the unforgettable tragedies life always has residing just around the corner. Love is Strange lives up to its title, the story of togetherness and romance it tells universal in scope and significance up until the final portrait is hung and a smile of youthful promise blossoms into hope-filled reality.
Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 3.5 out of 4