In Ira Sachs’ Love Is Strange the ever-dependable Alfred Molina and John Lithgow deliver fine performances as George and Ben, a New York couple who are forced to live apart from one another due to circumstances beyond their control. It’s a moving, tender and heartwarming portrait of two people in a sudden state of flux when really they ought to be enjoying the ongoing stability of their long-term (40-year) relationship, and the film is beautifully-written, keeping your attention throughout with its believable, interesting and often witty dialogue. It’s also edited in an intelligent fashion by Affonso Gonçalves and Michael Taylor, who elicit shifts in tone and imbue earlier scenes with extra meaning through their astute work.
We first see George and Ben on their wedding day, and they are joined in celebration during and after the ceremony by various friends and family members. However, rather than subsequently carrying on as per normal at home, they enter a period of upheaval: first news of the marriage causes George – who has always been open about his sexuality – to lose his job as a music teacher in a Catholic school; without that salary they are unable to hold on to their apartment and must ask those same family members and friends to put them up temporarily while they seek alternative accommodation. Unfortunately no-one has enough space for the two of them, so George moves in with cop neighbours Ted (Cheyenne Jackson) and Roberto (Manny Perez), a younger, party-loving gay couple obsessed with Game Of Thrones. Meanwhile artist Ben moves in with his nephew Elliott (Darren Burrows), who lives in Brooklyn with novelist wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and their increasingly-withdrawn son Joey (Charlie Tahan).
The film concentrates on this period of forced separation, and the tension it causes, though the relationship at the heart of the film is largely unaffected, (although the separation does upset both men). George is too old and too introverted to enjoy life with his friendly, younger neighbours, who like to be at the centre of their own social hub and are unable to offer any private space to their guest, or even any peace and quiet; meanwhile Ben ends up imposing on the already-tense household he stays in, with Kate’s frustrations at being disturbed while writing adding to her general unhappiness with largely-absent Elliott, and Joey’s ‘difficult period’ further souring the atmosphere.
During their time living apart from one another Ben and George meet regularly, as you would expect: for dates, chats with affordable housing authorities, impromptu late night visits, etc. In each of these scenes the warmth the two characters exhibit for one another is infectious, helping to create a bittersweet tone that courses through the film.
Sachs, who wrote the screenplay with Mauricio Zacharias, subtly explores public projections of love and solidity with private realities. Privately, Ben and George appear to be every bit as much in love as they publicly profess to be on their wedding day. Meanwhile, Kate’s simmering disenchantment is completely at odds with her slightly self-centred speech at the wedding reception, in which she paints a somewhat rosy picture of her own marriage. She is a sympathetic character, though, and her frustrations are explained and understandable. (It must also be remembered that we’re only privvy to a short period of time in the lives of these characters; in the case of Kate and Elliott it’s a snapshot after more than fifteen years together and in the case of George and Ben it’s a brief glimpse of four entire decades as a couple; Sachs reminds us of this via a conversation Ben and George have in a bar, during which the subject of Ben’s old infidelities crops up.)
The film does not neglect its supporting characters, and Joey in particular gradually becomes more important as time passes, particularly with regard to the film’s final sun-kissed moments, which are wonderfully shot by Christos Voudouris. His friendship with a slightly-older teenage boy named Vlad (Eric Tabach) is a concern for his parents, who believe the secretive pair are stealing. However the main focus is on Ben and George, a pair of well-written characters who are expertly-realised by Lithgow and Molina; at times I was reminded of the married couple in Michael Haneke’s celebrated film Amour, in the sense that the elderly Parisians of that film, Georges and Anne, had been together for a long time and interacted with a comfortable ease that’s rarely carried off so believably. Here it is just as credible; you can tell just as much by the eye contact the two share as anything they say, and I was totally taken in by the depiction of this relationship.
You could argue that Lithgow and Molina have never been better, and Tomei certainly equals the quality of her turn in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. Unfortunately it’s yet another very good film that failed to make an impression on The Academy this year, and while enough has been written on that award ceremony of late to last a lifetime, it’s worth briefly mentioning that Love Is Strange is just as deserving of attention as any of the other ignored works; in an alternative universe Molina, Lithgow or Tomei could have picked up Oscars yesterday evening and no-one would be able to say they didn’t deserve them.
A limited release (only 130-odd screens across the US, for example) has seemingly put paid to wider recognition, but my advice is that you don’t let this film slip by unnoticed, even if you have to watch it on the small screen: it’s a warm, rich account of two people in love, it ruminates gracefully on the cyclical nature of life, and it examines familial discord very well too. Added to that, Sachs’ attitude towards New York City is redolent of some of Woody Allen’s better moments, and his latest film is just as amusing.
Directed by: Ira Sachs
Written by: Ira Sachs, Mauricio Zacharias
Starring: John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Marisa Tomei, Charlie Tahan, Darren Burrows
Running Time: 94 minutes