Love Is Strange (2014)
Dir: Ira Sachs
A seemingly idyllic life is thrown into mild disarray in Ira Sachs’ low key and lyrical Love Is Strange, an examination of growing old in the modern world, personal boundaries, and the bonds of love. Sartre said “Hell is other people” but happiness can be too, and it’s in these relationships that Sachs finds understanding, humour, and humanity in this wise character study.
Noted character actors John Lithgow and Alfred Molina play Ben and George, a couple for nearly 40 years who’ve finally decided to tie the knot in a small Manhattan ceremony. Shortly thereafter (an opulent honeymoon is mentioned offhandedly while the movie takes pleasure in disorienting time jumps) George loses his job as a music teacher at a Catholic school due to his new marital status. As a now-married gay man he’s in supposed conflict with the church, despite being a beloved mentor and being open about his partnership for years. With only Ben’s paltry pension to rely on, they’re forced to sell their well-appointed apartment and find alternate digs.
This may smack of “First World Problems” on a surface level, but the natural and warm way these characters are portrayed and their Kafka-esque ordeals in the New York housing system do indeed elicit sympathy. With nowhere left to turn and no reasonably priced apartment in sight, the couple is forced to rely on the kindness of friends and family, staying with them until they can sort their own situation out. It shows how precarious a living situation can be, as these two adult men were only a few missed paychecks away from essentially being homeless and, more tragic still, the root cause was an unfortunate circumstance of institutionalized prejudice.
Ben, the older and more emotionally fragile of the two, goes to stay with his nephew Elliot (Darren Burrows). This being New York and with space at an absolute premium, Ben is forced to share a bunk bed with Elliot’s teenage son. He peppers Elliot’s wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) with constant questions while she tries to work and, despite best intentions, becomes a burden. The cramped living conditions quickly prove to be too much for Elliot’s family although Ben remains mostly oblivious to his intrusions. On the phone with George he comments, “Sometimes when you live with people you know them better than you care to”, elucidating the occasional issues then even close family and friends can experience when penned up together.
Meanwhile, the more introverted half of the couple George takes up residence on the couch of his friends, cops Ted (Cheyenne Jackson) and Roberto (Manny Perez). Not wanting to be a nuisance, he quietly endures Ted and Roberto’s Game of Thrones marathons, tabletop gaming sessions and impromptu parties, all while pining for his better half and some peace and quiet. When a stranger comments on George’s seeming loneliness he responds, “I’m never bored with my own company,” although he does miss Ben dearly.
With longstanding living arrangements shattered and little time for privacy, the two have to steal their moments of happiness and savour them accordingly. An opportunity for a night out and a quiet drink at a bar becomes a monumental respite, as Ben and George reminisce fondly upon a shared life well-lived. It’s poignant and affecting, an example of two well-drawn and lived-in characters played with ease and mastery by two actors with many lifetimes of roles between them.
There are other moments of grace as well, such as when George is unexpectedly moved by a child’s rendition of a classical Chopin piece. This scene is cut with narration of a letter he wrote to the parents of his former students that calls for acceptance and tolerance in a world where it can often be in short supply. Another moment finds Ben connecting with his nephew’s son Joey despite their differences and Ben’s intrusion on their carefully curated life. The drama is small scale but attuned to relatable human behaviour, as anyone who’s had a house guest that’s overstayed their welcome or felt the ache of being separating from a loved one can attest.
With steady shots and strong compositions, Love Is Strange is another in a long line of movies that make New York look great onscreen. A late film scene of Ben and George strolling down a nighttime street and out of frame is both striking and well composed, displaying a finely tuned visual sense. Fine classical music backgrounds many scenes, which lends a lilting and appropriate soundtrack to a movie that engages with, and is in many ways about, living with art (Ben is a painter while George teaches music).
If you can get past the hurdle of some perspective and tonal shifts, as well as the fact that while these men have problems there are many in the world who have it worse, then there’s lots to enjoy in Love In Strange. It’s gorgeous and knowing, an ode to long standing love – the type that may have waned in passion but is still kind and supportive. Also, it lists a “dungeons and dragons consultant” in the credits. What’s not to like about that?