17 October 2014
London

My London Film Festival marathon closes with two very different New York-based love stories: the wonderful Love Is Strange and the well-meaning but deeply pretentious The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.

Movies are often obsessed with the beginning of relationships. The mechanics of boy-meets-girl (or, more and more these days, boy-meets-boy or girl-meets-girl), the exhilaration of new love and the overcoming of obstacles for two lovers to meet are the well-established tropes of Hollywood romance, populated by legions of fresh-faced firm bodied young ingénues.

Portrayals of relations after the “happily ever after” are comparatively fewer on the ground. Film seems uniquely placed among the arts to trace the passage of love over time and space, but seldom does so. There are, no doubt, commercial reasons for this – young love is sexy and sells tickets, whereas relationships that just carry on for years lack a certain marketability. Perhaps it’s also an aesthetic preference. Cinema feels most powerful when it traces the immediacy of the present, capturing an actor in a moment of lived experience. Films that trace a character over decades often suffer from a sense of inauthenticity. We know that the actors are faking their own ageing process, and so the artificiality of the storytelling is highlighted. (The only film in recent memory that finds a way around this is Richard Linklater’s extraordinary Boyhood, which filmed a child actor over twelve years, thus finding an organic way to show a character literally growing up on screen).

As I grow older, I’m becoming less interested in tales of perky young love and more drawn to films that show the workings of long-term relationships. Two films in this year’s London Film Festival, both set in modern day New York, provide two very different perspectives on long-term love stories – one quietly sustained through turbulent times, and the other shattered apart after a tragedy.

Ira Sachs’ lovely film Love Is Strange, the same-sex love story at its centre is anything but strange. We’re introduced to Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina), a gay couple in their 60s, as they wake from sleep and shuffle about their apartment getting dressed, looking for Ben’s lost spectacles. Later, they try to hail a cab in the street, quietly bickering at each other about being late. It feels like an unremarkable beginning, until we realise that they are on their way to their own wedding. The fact of their relationship is central to the film and never questioned by anyone – and even held up by younger characters as an example of a successful marriage. Though this seems a bit right on, there’s something wonderfully refreshing about a film where the gay characters have evolved beyond the coming-out phase of their identity, and are living openly and without apology.

Ben and George’s relationship comes under strain of a particularly painful kind. George is dismissed from his job as music teacher at a Catholic school when the church hears about the marriage. Unable to cover their expenses, the pair are forced to sell their apartment and live separately with family members while they search for a more affordable home. George takes the sofa in the living room of his neighbours, two gay cops who go in for all night partying, while Ben moves in with his nephew and wife, two self-absorbed artists who have trouble communicating with each other or their teenaged son.

In another movie, this could have been the source for broad, sitcom-ish comedy. As written and directed by Sachs, it becomes a minor tragedy, as Ben and George realise that there is no place left in a busy, over-priced city for their relationship. They hover nervously on the periphery of homes that aren’t quite their own, smiling with the jaw-clenched anxiety of unwanted guests. I wondered occasionally why all these selfish rich white people couldn’t just get over themselves and find a way to get along together, but Sachs doesn’t seem interested in passing judgment on his characters. Instead, he lets them rub up against each other uncomfortably, and allows his fine cast to do some magnificent work.

Lithgow and Molina are wonderful together, giving a richly detailed sense of a life spent in each other’s company. They express an enduring affection for each other, nestling in among old irritations and the newer stresses of their situation. They’re full-blooded, lived in performances that never lapse into camp clichés, and give full weight to their passion for each other. It’s one of the finest renderings of a gay relationship I’ve seen in years, creating a gravity and emotional power that lingers long after the movie is over.

In one particularly fine scene, Ben and George go to a music recital and end up at Julius’, reputedly the oldest gay bar in New York. Ben, an artist who is the more devilish of the pair, scores a free round of drinks by telling the barman he was one of the original protesters at the bar during the Stonewall era. They toast departed friends, and have a disarmingly honest conversation about their respective records on marital fidelity. George says sternly, no doubt for the millionth time, that he has always been faithful. Ben looks sadly at him and apologises, no doubt also once again, for not being able to do the same. It’s an extraordinary moment, of the kind I’ve not seen in a gay love story before, which gives us a deep insight into the complexities of a working relationship. In the space of a few minutes, Lithgow and Molina trace a world of anger, betrayal, acceptance and eventual forgiveness. It took my breath away, and made me hope that I might be able to sit in a bar thirty years from now and have a similar conversation with someone I love.

Sachs’ filmmaking is warm and generous and proceeds at a leisurely, elegiac pace. Occasionally he pushes too hard to set the emotional tone. His use of classical piano music throughout feels a tad jarring, though it has a wonderful pay-off in one scene where George listens to one of his young pupils playing Chopin. The film also suffers from one too many convenient plot twists, including an eleventh-hour reveal that feels contrived to wring a big gay response from the audience as the curtain falls. I’m also not sure that Sachs’ switching focus from Ben and George to the younger generation really works. With actors as good as Lithgow and Molina, we want them to fill the screen at every moment – not pass the torch to a tadpole on a skateboard.

Mostly, though, this is wonderful filmmaking. In its own quiet and unassuming way, Love Is Strange may prove to be a breakthrough movie in representations of gay relationships and older gay characters. The LFF screening was auspiciously timed just a week after the Vatican’s announcement of a (slightly) more tolerant view of homosexuality – though as George says at one point, I’d prefer to do my praying alone. I’m delighted to hear that Love Is Strange will get a cinematic release in February 2015 – please, go and see it, y’all.

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Meanwhile, on the other side of Central Park, there’s trouble in Hipsterville in Ned Benson’s debut film The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, a drama about the destruction of a boy-girl marriage. Though passionately made and acted with commitment by Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy as the unhappy lovers, it’s a film that proves to be as fatally pretentious as its title.

Eleanor Rigby is the latest of a series of indie films (I’d include in there Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine and Ira Sachs’ last effort Keep The Lights On) that suffer from the same deadening combination of high artistic pretension and lowbrow melodrama. The opening scene sets the tone for most of what’s to follow. Our two attractive leads are having dinner in a candlelit bistro. Eleanor (Chastain) – who, by the way, is named after the Beatles song – decides it would be fun to skip out without paying the bill. She leaves first, with Conor (McAvoy) following, half-confused, half turned on. We cut to the two of them running gaily down a darkened street and into the magical underworld of Central Park at night, while an indie band pounds something hip and baroque on the soundtrack. It feels light and exciting, like a music video or a Gap ad. “I only have one heart,” Conor says, as the lovers have photogenic, beautifully lit sex in the park: “Go easy on me.”

Would that Benson had followed his own advice. I wanted to love Eleanor Rigby, and to be swept away with its young characters’ emotional passions. Benson seems to want this too, adopting the stripped down aesthetic of the French New Wave – hand-held cameras, natural light, long uninterrupted takes – in an attempt to imitate the raw energy and emotional immediacy of Breathless and A Man And A Woman. (The last film is referenced, somewhat clunkily, by repeated shots of a movie poster in Eleanor’s old bedroom). Alas, what felt new and exciting in those films feels like slick manipulation here, especially given the dull series of clichés that populate Benson’s screenplay.

As we quickly learn, things go very badly for the lovers. In a few jarringly cut scenes, we see Eleanor throwing herself off a bridge, then being released from hospital and retreating to her parents’ WASP nest in upstate New York, refusing to communicate with Conor at any point. Something Horrible has clearly happened. Benson’s instincts about how to break the bad news – the death of Conor and Eleanor’s infant son – is maddeningly confused. It starts out as the elephant in the room, an ugly fact that is too traumatising to be talked about. When it’s finally revealed, it becomes the cement that’s supposed to glue the characters’ erratic behaviour together. It’s a lazy piece of screenwriting, that reaches for a big dramatic effect without doing the groundwork on the specifics of the characters’ grief.

In the absence of any clear insight into the characters’ motives, we’re left with a series of music video tableaux as we watch two wounded people try to move on with their lives. Eleanor wanders listlessly around Manhattan in black panda eye make-up and a series of urban urchin denims. She sits in on college lectures on the nature of identity (which inspires more banal fortune cookie dialogue, such as “I didn’t know who I was before I met you”) and ponders whether to return to Paris to finish her thesis on the ethnography of French performance artists – a detail that appears to land with utter seriousness. Meanwhile, Conor manfully gets on with trying to save his failing bar and stalks Eleanor romantically, hoping to get his woman back. There are altercations with taxis and joyrides in the rain, and more spectacularly silly dialogue. I don’t usually take notes during films, but found myself scribbling furiously in the dark to record some of Benson’s biggest clunkers. “Grief is another country – we don’t know how to talk to the natives,” someone says solemnly. “Do I seem like a different person to you?” someone else asks. I can’t remember who says it to whom, or why. It really doesn’t matter.

This is the kind of film that I imagine actors would love, given the melodramatic arcs of the story and the resultant opportunities for “big” over-indulgent acting. It’s impressive, then, that the leads mostly hold themselves back. Chastain has the difficult job of trying to make a profoundly depressed character seem interesting, without piercing the bubble of her character’s grief. She mostly doesn’t succeed, though this feels more Benson’s fault than hers – he’s so besotted with his pretty porcelain-skinned actress that he ends up fetishising the character’s grief rather than exploring it. McAvoy has never impressed me much as an actor, and here feels like too recessive a presence to take on the mantle of leading man. The pair have some interesting moments with each other, though Benson gives us few clues as to what might have attracted them to each other in the first place.

Benson has a particularly lustrous supporting cast, and yet the non-lead characters are, on the whole, feebly and unimaginatively drawn. As Eleanor’s parents, William Hurt and Isabelle Huppert are sketched in crudely with paintbox colours left over from Ordinary People and the two million other movies about repressed WASPs living in multi-squillion dollar houses. (He wears woollen ties, she drinks, everything is beige). Back in Manhattan, Conor has his drunk, philosophising father (Ciarán Hinds), his chef and concerned friend Stuart (Bill Hader) who throws vegetables at him as a form of tough love, and a barmaid (Nina Arianda) whose sole purpose in the movie is to offer Conor sex. Everyone sprouts improbably wise and articulate thoughts about family life or the nature of love (“We live in a world of probables,” the barmaid says, before making her move) but no one seems real – they’re all just functions of the plot, arranged like moving props to allow Chastain and McAvoy to hit their emotional marks.

Just in case we’re overdosing on white privilege, there’s a sassy African-American college professor (Viola Davis) who offers Eleanor homespun wisdom over coffee and burgers, and delivers what sounds like the world’s most boring post-grad lecture on Descartes. She doesn’t even mind when Eleanor sits on the floor outside her office, apparently too chic and existential to use a chair like everyone else. Poor Davis – she’s too good an actor to be stuck in this kind of thankless role. Even though she’s swapped her maid’s uniform from The Help for some Oprah-esque big Third World jewellery, she’s still ministering to unhappy white people who get better lighting than she does.

The only character who breathes with her own spark of life is Eleanor’s sister Katy (Jess Weixler). There’s a sweet, unexpectedly moving scene where Eleanor, high on self-pity, says melodramatically that she feels like she sucks all the energy out of the room (which she does). It’s a moment where you expect Katy to say something warm and reassuring. Instead, she speaks from the heart: “Yeah, you’re a bitch,” she says, suddenly serious. It’s a line that made me laugh and then stopped me in my tracks. For the first time in the movie, someone other than Eleanor or Conor was allowed to express their own feelings, and break through the spell of the lovers’ solipsism. It was a lovely moment, though sadly not one that lasted.

Benson’s conclusion seems to be that Eleanor and Conor, even though they may no longer be right for each other, are the only ones who can help each other out of their respective circles of hell. There’s a wrenching scene towards the end that feels like a resolution – but Benson lets the action dribble on and on, revealing a lack of certainty about how to close his story. The final sequence, which audiences will love or loathe depending on their sympathies for the film, leaves this question tantalisingly open.

This version of Eleanor Rigby is a composite piece, based on two separate full-length films Benson made from each of the lovers’ points of view (sub-titled “Him” and “Her”). It’s possible that these earlier, longer versions offered more development in character and plot, and that the splicing into a single film has left much of this texture on the cutting room floor. It’s also possible that the longer versions would have been even more excruciating, and that I was lucky to get away with a mere two hours.

I’m sure there will be an audience for Eleanor Rigby – the Shoreditch media types sitting next to me at the LFF screening were weeping loudly by the end of the film, and I have no doubt that it’ll get a UK release date soon. For me, though, it offers little insight or originality into human relationships, and is a cautionary tale against the dangers of unfocused, over-indulgent filmmaking. Though Benson’s intentions seem to be pure, this was one Beatles song that I’d be quite happy to see disappear.

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