If marriage is a pathway to gay assimilation, then gay cinema needs assimilation too, and will naturally look to consecrated Hollywood product as its guide. Or so I’d begin a cruel, superficial review of Love is Strange, Ira Sachs’ remake of Leo McCarey’s 1937 classic Make Way for Tomorrow, if I didn’t love both these films as much as I do. Coming after Sachs’ previous feature, the messy, defiant, sexually explicit Keep the Lights On (and at times visually bold: a scene of drug-taking shows red skin against yellow apartment wall, a beautiful, vibrating image), Love is Strange feels especially chaste. But in both films, Sachs, in the manner of his professed hero Ozu, maintains a calm, steady gaze and exquisite sensitivity to the demands of the story. Love is Strange stands apart, from gay cinema and from assimilation anxiety, to the extent that its two lead characters have graduated to the specific concerns of the aged. The film belongs on a shelf, neatly ordered, with other works that illuminate these concerns: Make Way for Tomorrow, of course, and also Tokyo Story, The Last Laugh, Umberto D, Wild Strawberries, Ikiru, Harry and Tonto.
Director: Ira Sachs
Producers: Lucas Joaquin, Lars Knudsen, Ira Sachs, Jayne Baron Sherman, Jay Van Hoy
Writers: Ira Sachs, Mauricio Zacharias
Cinematographer: Christos Voudouris
Editors: Affonso Gonçalves, Michael Taylor
Cast: John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Tatyana Zbirovskaya, Olya Zueva, Jason Stuart, Darren Burrows, Marisa Tomei, Charlie Tahan
Premiere: January 18, 2014 – Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: August 22, 2014
US Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Unique among this list, I’m nearly certain, Love is Strange opens with a pair of bodies in a bedroom. Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina), partners of 39 years, awake on the morning of their marriage; a wonderfully disorienting opening sequence shows them getting ready for the occasion. Later, a series of efficiently introduced plot points force the two men to reckon with temporary homelessness and separation, and dependence on family. As the film begins to follow the patterns of Make Way for Tomorrow, the differences of Ben and George’s relationship to each other and to the times, compared to Make Way’s Barkley and Lucy, register primarily in details. George loses his music teaching job at a Catholic school when news of his marriage circulates, and the scene of his firing develops as if he’s merely been laid off—he doesn’t protest, but cuttingly remarks that he’d rather pray alone (he later offers a more considered written response, imaginatively inserted into the film during a private piano lesson). Soon the men lose their apartment and seek help from family. Family, of course, has a broad definition for two childless men, but theirs is as meager a support as Barkley and Lucy’s five thankless adult children.
They make living arrangements, separately, and as the two men navigate their new environments, the film becomes a minor study in household dynamics. Each of the film’s three households has its own rhythms and rules, delineated to varying degrees. Ben and George’s apartment, before the separation, is only glimpsed, but a rare and delicate harmony clearly resides, in parting shots of Ben washing the dishes and George taking out the trash. This vision of their peaceful, reciprocal domestic life resonates as the two men find themselves in homes that have no space for them, no matter how spacious. George sleeps on the couch in the small apartment of two friends, both cops, who seem to host parties on a nightly basis. But George at least has the comfort of going unnoticed. Ben shares a bedroom with his nephew’s teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan), and beyond the door Joey’s mother Kate (Marisa Tomei) presides, passively negotiating her home’s large, open rooms until the silence becomes oppressive. Kate adores Ben, but not at such close range, and not when he takes her attention from her work. Everyone struggles to adapt, while Ben, casually attuned to the film’s most insidious dramatic thread, speaks about the danger of “knowing people better than you wanted.” He seeks the best possible escape: a revival screening of The Gang’s All Here, viewed alone.
Ben and George rarely share the screen during this section of the film, and the central feature of both Lithgow’s and Molina’s performances is the way they always conjure a sense of the other man’s absence. When they do share time, moments of pleasure and basic human need abound (phone calls, a novelty for longtime cohabitants; Ben showing up late at night, soaked from the rain, needing George’s embrace; George demanding Ben’s body next to his in the lower bunk bed), and cause in their observers, particularly Kate, pangs of recognition and fleeting sympathy, but these never lead to any greater well of compassion. Simply put, George and Ben are in the way. When Kate chastises Ben for using her son’s friend as a model in one of his paintings, Ben’s bewildered reaction to this scolding, to being unwanted, stands out as the most devastating moment of Lithgow’s portrayal. The saddest part is that Ben and George, as human beings, could not be any more grateful, any less demanding. A decades-long love affair has never wanted so little space and so little nourishment to survive, and yet it’s still too much to ask. These are men who have tamed their passions, toward each other and toward their work (music, art), so as to allow these things to endure, but they never accounted for the need for charity. The film wisely gives no indication how they’ve managed their relationship in the past, and offers no concrete information, even in remembrance, on their first 39 years together, making the present difficulty all the more incomprehensible.
Late in the film, the two men part at a train station, and as in Make Way, it’s one of a series of separations that certain aspects of composition and narration suggest could be the last. Make Way ends there, but in Love is Strange a coda intervenes: shots lengthen, compositions become more mannered, Sachs’ confident, guiding hand almost shows itself. Even as the coda contains the film’s saddest development (George saying “I got lucky” tells what has happened, before the film has caught up), it only softens the tragedy, by bestowing the film’s themes on youth, in the body of Joey, who until this point has remained an enigma, a boy trapped in secretive, inarticulate adolescence. As it turns out, Joey has been regarding Ben and George’s plight all along (the only one to do so, in fact), and more importantly, love is a force in his life, too.
But what caused me to leave the theater with a dry face was the knowledge that the film, for all its Chopin and bittersweetness, depicts the best possible outcome, for my future, for Ben and George’s. 39 years is a long time together. But maybe I’m selling myself, and them, short, and maybe what elevates Love is Strange to gay cinema, after all, is the way that the two men’s unceremonious shuffle into their final years has nothing to do with making way for tomorrow, and everything to do with an enduring deficit of fulfillment and happiness in the lives of gay people.