Love Is Strange (2014, Ira Sachs) Love Is Strange opens in appealing placidity, elderly couple Ben and George waking up naturally, exchanging hellos and good mornings with their housekeeper, quietly fussing over their pastel-coloured tuxes and walking out into the busy sidewalk beneath their West Village apartment where they rib each other over the likelihood of managing to hail a cab in their area at this time of day. Turns out they’re en route to their own wedding, laying precedent for the film’s sweet, low-key approach to grand gestures and life-altering events. With its pretty, melancholy piano score and its repeated static shots of hazy springtime Manhattan, Love Is Strange is a meanderer of a movie, never particularly exciting or comedic, but engaging in its pleasant normalcy.
Shortly after they are married, and in what turns out to be one of the film’s rare references to their sexuality, George is let go from his long-time position teaching music at a Catholic school due to his so-called breaching of a morality clause. As a result, he and the retired Ben are unable to afford to pay the extortionate rent for their apartment, forcing them to live separately with friends and relatives until they find a new home.
While never alienating to viewers from everywhere else in the world, there is a palpable New York specificity to Love Is Strange, not only in its detailed dramatisations of the world of Manhattan real estate, but in Ben and George’s reluctance to move upstate or away from the culture and energy of the place they call home. Manhattan is painted as an intimidating, inspiring and headache-inducing place, but one that stings with vibrancy and creativity.
At the heart of it are two fantastic, charismatic actors. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina have an easy, tender rapport, their mutual warmth breathing life into Ben and George’s lengthy relationship. Though it is never explicitly spoken of, however, age hangs over the two of them. Ben is frail and forgetful, reminded constantly of his own mortality, and rapidly evolving into the doddering old man he never anticipated becoming. Lithgow walks with a softened, anxious weariness, his face open and thoughtful, though bearing the shadow of past mistakes and regrets. Molina is the younger and snappier of the two, cheery and upbeat, almost resigned to the fact that while they’ve both hit their twilight years, they’ve hitten harder for Ben.
Orbiting around them are a collection of family and friends. Director Ira Sachs, who co-wrote the film with Mauricio Zacharias, isn’t interested in going particularly deep with any of his supporting cast, (whether it’s Ben’s relations or George’s young, gay cop friends, all are drawn thinly), seeming rather more intent on capturing the feel and state of a specific moment in time. It is clear the marriage between Ben’s nephew and his wife (played by Darren Burrows and Marisa Tomei) is experiencing its own trauma, for instance, but the film retreats before getting too specific. Their teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan) is angst-ridden and reactionary, his parents concerned about a newfound friendship, but there is no climactic revelation or explosive resolution where the root of his turmoil is revealed. Instead the film’s characters play like threads woven in and out of a larger fabric. It’s not enormously cinematic, but feels raw and truthful.
Ultimately, thoughts return to the film’s title. Love Is Strange isn’t an issues movie or an exploration of something similarly ‘important’, its true purpose lies in its very name. Love is strange, bizarre and baffling, a feeling that leads you to upset and upheaval, joy and rage. Everything on offer here proves a testament to it of sorts: the love we feel for those around us, the cities we exist in, and the homes that we make our own.
Originally published in Venue #309 (24/02/15)