Try, try, try to separate them: Ira Sachs’ Love is Strange

A scene toward the end of Love is Strange sees protagonists Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) out on a much-needed date, and makes the bold statement regarding the aesthetic trajectory of writer/director Ira Sachs. The two married men have just attended a concert, a music recital for one of George’s students. Ben wants to wax lyrical about the beauty of the performance, but George comments that so much embellishment is unnecessary when the material is already so beautiful. It’s hardly a head-bludgeoning moment, but it does clarify for us what Sachs is on about with Love is Strange. Sachs, who is Jewish and openly gay, isn’t just making a gay version of Tokyo Story meets Make Way for Tomorrow. The love he wants to depict – beyond the passion these two men have for each other – includes the relatives and friends struggling with the juxtaposition love plays in all our lives. Love demands high levels of commitment and few can live up to the calling. And yet love contains within itself a delicate beauty that needs no embellishment and is never enhanced by the clumsy nature of our attempts to embody or wield it as a transformative experience.

The film opens with Ben and George, long time lovers, waking to the dawn of a new day. It is their wedding day, arrived after forty years of committed love and no doubt many more years of fighting for social acceptance. The men have the gentle tolerance of any long time married couple, politely accepting each other’s foibles, taking pleasure in the small secret understandings that build a cocoon around them and brace them from the world. After the marriage, a light cheery ceremony outdoors that becomes a stifling party in their apartment, Georges is fired from his job. He works for a Catholic school and while their living arrangement was tolerated, their openly gay marriage is not.

So, Ben and George are forced to sell their apartment, live with friends and relatives and work out what they will do about their situation. Ben goes to live with his nephew Elliot (Darren Burroughs) and his wife Kate (Marissa Tomei) and their son Joey (Charlie Tahan). George moves downstairs to their good friend’s apartment, gay cops (in a not-so-subtle Village People reference) who have endless parties preventing George from sleeping well on their couch. Each is forced to confront the complexities of familial charity, of the powerlessness and eternal gratitude of the receiver and the judgmental waning warmth of the giver. It is here that the bulk of Love is Strange plays out, among the petty and soul-eroding difficulties of the day-to-day manifestation of a true love one feels for those around them.

Love is Strange is strongest when it examines twin issues; the impact of economics on love and the warring down exhaustion of the battle that is life. The film implies, particularly given the age of the protagonists, that they would have been far better off without the embellishment of marriage, which acts like an intrusion on the delicate beauty of their love affair. Toward the end of the film Ben lies about being a gay civil rights fighter, George laughs at his incorrigibility as the two relegate such nonsense to their youthful past. Everything we think represents love, like fidelity, cohabitation and marriage steps aside for the purity of feeling the two men have for each other. As each man grows wearier of the daily challenge the connection between them becomes everything they have, and the viewer can’t help noticing, it is the thing the embellishments were hiding all along.

The film doesn’t just preach these two points, however, and it is here that the narrative breaks down and strangely, Sachs commits the very crime he is preaching against. Ben’s relatives are thinly drawn, particularly the character of Kate, who is depicted to be a shrill, mean woman because Ben is interfering with her ability to work. The family never embraces Ben’s presence; he is always treated as a charity case, the care of whom is shuffled between them as if he were a burden. To paint such an uninteresting picture of people too sophisticated to behave the way they do, smacks of plastered writing, as if the family are tacked on to pad out the narrative. We know all the members of this little family love Ben, but Sachs draws them with no creative ability to deal with their situation and they become tiresome, dull and the point of their existence is laboured. The nice idea of beautiful homoerotic friendship the straight Joey makes with an older boy is bludgeoned to death by the tedious behaviour of his parents, characters with which Tomei and Burroughs can do very little. Georges’ plight is better drawn, but there is less of it, and the characters act as satellites around his introspection.

Love is Strange has its deep vibrating beauty, there is no doubt about it, but like all of us, Sachs can’t resist the embellishments he already knows he should, and we are left with many beautiful moments, cobbled together with a rather poor quality cement. Much like life. Love is Strange has beautiful performances from its central characters and if it’s a little on the nose at times, these small crimes are easy to forgive. Like many almost great films, Love is Strange will leave the viewer feeling a little frustrated for its falling only slightly short of the mark of greatness.

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