Love is Strange (2015) Dir. Ira Sachs
Starring: John Lithgow, Alfred Molina
George (Alfred Molina) and Ben (John Lithgow), a gay couple living in Manhattan, marry after a four-decade long relationship. Unfortunately, George, a music teacher at a Catholic school, loses his job as a result, the marriage seen as a conflict of interest by the church. With no fixed income, the couple are forced to move out of their apartment and live with their respective relatives and friends whilst they figure out what to do. George moves in with a neighbouring gay-cop couple, whilst Ben moves in with his nephew, Eliot, and his family. Both are out of place, seemingly irritating and irritated by the circumstances of their new environments, and what is meant to be a life of wedded bliss turns into a life of growing misery.
Love is Strange is not a happy tale of romance, but rather a depiction of the realities of love and marriage through the prism of aging. There is certainly a deep and familiar love between George and Ben, superbly portrayed by Alfred Molina and John Lithgow respectively, but the great romance of youth has since left them. Their marriage leads not to a honeymoon that sweeps them off their feet, but rather drudgery, chaos, and the eventual ending of their time together – I refrain from giving too much away about how the film concludes. The gentility of the pacing and of the framing by director Ira Sachs contrasts with the sudden upheaval these two men find themselves in, and creates a portentous atmosphere whereby it feels inevitable from the moment they marry that things will not end well.
Surprisingly, despite the film being about the relationship of these two men, we see little of them together, as they are forced to live separate lives in different domestic spaces. When we first meet them, waking in their apartment on the day of their wedding, little is spoken between them, a familiarity that exists in that relationship meaning they require few spoken words and can rely on gestures to communicate. This is not burning love, but companionship. John Lithgow as Ben is wonderfully distracted, wandering in an academic state of befuddlement in his baggy linen clothing, almost detached from what occurs, passive to the existential crisis unfolding around him. His passion is for his paintings, of which he tries to rescue when falling down a set of stairs, more concerned for the safety of his art than of himself. Alfred Molina as George is just as joyous to watch, his English accent complementing Lithgow’s aloofness perfectly. Together, they remind me of the pairing of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, entirely in synch and believably familiar with each other. One would like to see this acting simpatico continue in future work.
When watching Love is Strange, one is immediately reminded of Woody Allen’s ‘serious’ films, the likes of Interiors (1978), with its slow mediated look at domestic life and relationships, though Sachs in interviews has alluded specifically to Allen’s later 1980s work such as Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and Husbands and Wives (1992). Key to those films is the idea of domesticity and of the New York apartment as a domestic space, similar to how Ozu (again, alluded to by Sachs) and his work such as Tokyo Story (1953). Though there is seemingly little turmoil on the surface, it is the underlying tensions between families and relationships within these domestic spaces that provide such conflict. It would seem that very little happens in any of these films, or in Love is Strange – a mundanity – but at the same, the mundane leads to an inordinate amount of turmoil and change. Take the scene where Ben is chatting away, unaware of the annoyance he is creating for his nephew’s wife, Kate (Maria Tomei), a novelist who attempts to work but is constantly distracted by Ben. She bristles as he nosily makes a cup of tea, or when he penetrates the silence with yet more inane chitchat. She finally implores him to take up his own creative endeavours once more – he’s a painter by trade – but Ben, either lacking the emotional intelligence or being genuinely ignorant of his annoying habits, retorts that he finds it difficult to work with anyone else in the house. Forced to live together in such small spaces pushes the limits of human patience and of love; the love that Ben’s nephew, Eliot, feels for him is tested by his presence in the apartment and exacerbates the existing tension he has with his wife, and his adolescent son, who similarly resents the presence of Ben. And just as Ben’s presence affects the dynamics of the domestic space, so does the constant company of Vlad, his son’s best friend, which is seen by his parents as strange. Eliot raises the issue one night, suspecting his son and Vlad of being gay, the insinuation feeling perversely sinister due to Ben’s own sexuality. Yet, it transpires that the two are simply good friends, yet another kind of love that can exist without sexual desire, who are reading French literature in excited anticipation of a trip to Paris.
One could dwell on the fact that this is a gay film, but it is a film about so much more. It touches briefly on the still pernicious prejudices that gay men (and the LGBT community) – and gay marriage face – but thankfully dismisses these outdated views and of the church with the contempt they deserve. The Father who terminates George’s contract is closeted inside a dusty, dank old office, tantamount to the relic he and his views are, before moving on with the story. Yet, one of the most intriguing scenes is when the newly married couple head to an affordable housing advice office. George asks the administrator in a businesslike fashion if it is ok for Ben to accompany him, avoiding using the term husband. Later in the scene, when the administrator mentions that to apply for affordable housing he must meet the ‘criteria’, there is tension as George awkwardly offers that Ben and he are married, to which the administrator doesn’t blink an eye. Gay marriage may have been accepted in the eyes of the law, but socially it is still uncomfortable.
Ira Sachs creates a genuine portrayal of gay life in Love is Strange, steering away from stereotypes towards the ‘normalising’ of a gay relationship within society. This is in stark contrast to the output of Hollywood in recent years, particularly the ‘comedy’ (I use the term loosely) Get Hard (2015) featuring Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart that focuses on Ferrell, an investment banker heading to jail, who fears being raped by men in prison and has a ‘general disgust at the idea of gay sex’ (The Guardian, 2015). When one looks at the research into LGBT representation in Hollywood, it is startling to see that only ‘17 of the 102 movies from major studios in 2013 featured lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender characters, and of those, the majority were defamatory’ (The Guardian, 2015).
What we have with Love is Strange is not simply a positive portrayal – this feels like the wrong word – but a heartfelt and truthful portrayal of a gay relationship. After all, these two men aren’t without their faults. In one of their final scenes together there is the suggestion that, despite George’s devotion to him, Ben has never been wholly faithful throughout their years together. These are two characters that are entering the final stages of their life and both are nostalgic and reflective, with the film taking us ‘inside an embattled yet resilient same-sex relationship of many decades’ standing’ (Sight and Sound, 2015, Vol 25, 3: 43). It is a film that leaves one contemplating the complexities and strangeness of love, companionship and family.