Upon receiving the 10th Academy Award for Best Director in honour of his 1937 comedy The Awful Truth, Leo McCarey famously responded “Thanks, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture.” He was referring to his other, superior 1937 film Make Way For Tomorrow, in which an old married couple was forced to live apart due to poor financial decisions and – in light of their children’s own difficulties in simultaneously caring for them and running their households – silently acknowledge what little time they had left to spend together.
Although somewhat obscured in popular consciousness by the enduring popularity of his comedies, particularly the anti-fascist Marx Brothers satire Duck Soup, Make Way For Tomorrow remains Leo McCarey’s undisputed masterpiece and one of the most gently poignant love stories ever told on film. Its spirit lives on in Love Is Strange, which takes its basic premise and updates it to modern times. It just so happens that the couple in this film is gay.
And yet it would do both films a great injustice to refer to Love Is Strange as a gay remake of Make Way For Tomorrow, for the situations – both familial and personal – Ben and George each find themselves in are less related to the social Darwinian conditions brought on by economic realities than those encountered by the couple in McCarey’s film, and Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias’s screenplay is more focused on the elliptic little moments of pain and passion that mainstream cinema either brushes away or inscribes as part of a greater narrative. Ira Sachs’s direction, accordingly, observes the characters almost passively, usually in closed shots from which there is little escape, as if the camera was an invisible family member. When he breaks into wider shots, the movement contained within them is generally either very scarce or very slow, particularly if it comes from Ben (John Lithgow), the oldest of the couple. While the film is neither long nor particularly slow in pace, the great care Sachs takes in overlapping scenes of domestic dissatisfaction with distanced observations of passing time (and life) effectively constructs it with the same progressive patience of a traditional painter – not unlike Ben’s own painterly activities, which inspire many such moments.
This soft gradual construction – sometimes visually translated to an almost puzzle-like spatial construction where shots appear to interlock following a logical progress – helps Sachs and Zacharias extract more unsuspected feelings out of situations as ordinary as Ben talking to his niece Kate (Marisa Tomei) and nephew-in-law Elliot (Darren Burrows) about a film he just saw or George (Alfred Molina) feeling bored and out of place amidst the incessant parties in the flat he has to share with a younger gay couple. Whereas Make Way For Tomorrow clarified its characters’ predicament through scenes whose structure followed traditional theatrical codes, Love Is Strange focuses more on what happens in-between such scenes. Particular attention is given to the way Ben gets caught in the crossfires of familial conflicts of which we only perceive fragments – mainly Kate’s feeling of isolation due to Elliot’s absences and their son Joey’s ambiguous relationship with a slightly older-looking Russian boy – and that find no definitive resolution. It’s like regularly popping by at the house of close friends or relatives and catching bits and pieces of drama with every visit but not enough for you to have a truly informed opinion on the matter.
It is fitting then, that practically every scene is carried by feelings of anger, despair, sadness and umbrage that either find no voice or no adequate means of expression within the confines of human possibility. In few scenes is this more beautifully conveyed than George’s piano lesson to a small girl, whose initial missteps cause him to gently but firmly prod her for improvement. When she nervously starts again, his intent expression is initially not easy to read, particularly for someone who is unfamiliar with the works of Frédéric Chopin1: Is he unsatisfied? Waiting for a mistake or, on the contrary, for a moment of grace? It then becomes a little clearer that the music is overwhelming him far beyond what he had expected, though whether it is due to the girl’s talent or to something inherent within the music is, like many things in the film, up for the viewer to decide. Whatever the cause, the emotions and thoughts stirred up within him can only be articulated via cinematic means – a montage of George’s old school, set to both Chopin’s music and a letter from George to his students thanking them for their support and urging them to never feel the need to hide themselves. Again, it is unclear whether the letter represents something George actually wrote or simply wishes he could say. What is made clear by that scene – which, bereft of its context, might appear out of place – is that George’s passion for his job and the art he teaches goes hand-in-hand with his generally mild demeanour, and that music provides him with a means to give shape to emotions he cannot fully verbalize or comprehend.
There are many more such scenes whose richness derives from the wide maneuver margins Ira Sachs allows his actors, and the equally wide interpretational possibilities those scenes consequently take on. For instance, an early scene showing Elliot too busy phoning a colleague to help Joey with his school project points to his commitment to his job as the source of his and Kate’s marital problems. Yet the bedroom scene in which Kate vocalizes that precise thought slips in an additional possibility that comes to the viewer’s mind due to spectatorial habits: When Kate informs Elliot about a message she’d sent him, Elliot’s vague recollection of it and lazily-enunciated excuse for not answering it (he didn’t have a moment to check his messages), his lack of eye contact with her when he does so and the brief beat that follows, during which Kate looks at him and turns her head before casually asking him if he was that busy, authorize the viewer to speculate whether or not Elliot might be hiding an affair. A later, previously-mentioned scene in which Ben tells the couple of a Busby Berkeley film he saw begins with the pair of them sitting on a couch drinking wine and engaged in what appears to be a serious discussion. Ben’s unintentional intrusion coincides with our own, and their subsequent invitation for him to join them and tell them about his day prevents us from being fully privy to what exactly they were talking about. Valid or not, these speculations exist because Sachs and Zacharias acknowledge, as Ben does at one point, that “sometimes, you know somebody more than you care to”, and that such an uncomfortably close acquaintance makes the mysteries both of what we do behind closed doors and what we feel regardless of whether those doors are open or closed to us all the more frustrating. It is a frustration that the audience perceives within the characters – particularly Joey, who finds his fiercely-guarded privacy invaded by an unwelcome uncle who has to share his bedroom – without feeling it. This is not because Sachs wants to spare us discomfort but because our privileged position allows us to observe feelings and events whose beauty and significance are often lost on these characters.
So much more could be said about the many wonders of Love Is Strange: The unassuming authenticity of John Lithgow and Alfred Molina’s respective performances and chemistry; Charlie Tahan’s revelatory supporting performance as Joey; a brief but memorable appearance by Christian Coulson2 as a young friend-of-a-friend whose salvation of George is juxtaposed with the subtle tease of the possibility of infidelity; the shot that closes the film’s penultimate sequence, surely one of the most quietly powerful of 2014… Describing all these things would require too much time and do their potency too little justice. They are but many elements that make Love Is Strange one of the best films of 2014 without any obvious efforts.
1Full shameful disclosure: I am such a person.
2Whom Harry Potter fans may recognize as the original teenaged Tom Marvolo Riddle (aka Lord Voldemort) from Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets.