Love is Strange, is a brilliant bit of counter-programming for this Valentines weekend. If whips and chains aren’t really your thing, then maybe two ageing gay men will be, in Ira Sachs’ delightful tale of love, in all shapes and forms. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina play Ben and George, two New Yorkers, recently married after thirty-nine years together. When this news reaches the bishop in the catholic school in which George teaches music, he’s let go from his position and the couple find themselves struggling to pay the bills. As is often the case in life, the pair turn to family and friends for support and are forced to separate and move in with their nephew and neighbour for what they hope will be only temporarily. This in turn only causes further problems as the two find themselves a burden, suddenly stuck in the middle of other peoples lives and problems.
Ira Sachs’ Love is Strange is a raw and humanistic story that observes life and love in such a familiar way, that perhaps a more fitting title would have been Love is Normality. Sachs allows the drama to unfold with apparent minimal filmic manipulation, to the point where you feel enveloped in it; a part of it. Much like the two central characters, there are times where you feel like an imposition. Conversations are often had with the characters back to the camera and us, as if what’s being said is a secret that we shouldn’t be listening to. Shot composition and framing seem to be, at times, thrown completely out of the window; peoples faces come in and out of shot as if they are unaware of the camera even being there; the majority of the sound is diegetic and comes from the street noise of New York City and dialogue is sometimes tinny, as it bounces off of the room walls. All of this gives Love is Strange a somewhat messy, but authentic feel to it.
In a way it reminds me of Linklater’s Boyhood. Although nowhere near as ambitious, it comes from a similar school of storytelling; an almost documentarian look into real people’s lives, however mundane or exciting they may be. Sachs often lingers on a moment that could be as powerful and resonate as a young teenager crying with grief, or simply a senior citizen painting a city skyline. It’s this style of direction by Sachs that makes Love is Strange such an intimate and absorbing watch. Co-written with Mauricio Zacharias, the screenplay is textured with themes of regret, old age, death and of course love; but more than that, it’s a keen observation of family life and how difficult it can be when forced to share the same roof after years of being apart. It has a charming sense of humour as well, the success of which is a marriage between the performers and the writing. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina are wonderful as Ben and George and you totally believe in the two of them as a couple. Without ever slipping into the over dramatic, or stereotypes, their performances are understated but nevertheless a massive accomplishment and a joy to watch.
Whilst it’s sure to be overlooked this weekend, Love is Strange is worth seeking out as an alternative to that Fifty Shades of Grey . It may lack ‘story’ in the traditional sense if the word, but it’s a fascinating snapshot into the lives of genuinely interesting people. It’s a very personal, very real film that has two masterful performances from Lithgow and Molina. It may not scream Valentines viewing, but it is, in that it fundamentally deals with love. Whilst Ira Sachs doesn’t spell it out for us with huge, Hollywood gestures, he leaves us with the sense that love is indeed strange; love is natural; love is familial; love is frustrating; love is heartbreak; but more than anything love is absolute. And that’s a truly beautiful thing.
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