A bitter irony launches Loves Is Strange. By celebrating their union proudly, publicly and legally, two lovers are cruelly driven apart.
They are Ben (John Lithgow), a retired painter, and George (Alfred Molina), who’s still active, teaching music at a Manhattan Catholic high school. But when the archdiocese learns of the men’s marriage, following 39 years together, George gets fired. (A strikingly similar, real-life case unfolded in Macon this summer when Catholic school Mount de Sales Academy terminated the contract of its music director, Flint Dollar, after learning of his plans to marry his longtime male partner.)
Facing the high costs of New York, including having to buy new insurance policies in the wake of sudden joblessness, George and Ben decide to sell their apartment and, until they find another place, move in with friends or family. Temporarily. That’s the plan, anyway.
Ben lands with his nephew Elliot (Darren E. Burrows), his novelist wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and their sullen, secretive teenager Joey (Charlie Tahan). George winds up with gay cops Ted and Roberto (Cheyenne Jackson, Manny Perez), sleeping on their sofa — that is, when the sofa isn’t ground zero for the frequent house parties or Game of Thrones viewing marathons. (Nice touch: Ted has a crush on the series’ dragon-princess, Daenerys.)
Across town, Ben is barely tolerated by teen Joey, who has to share his bedroom with the old guy. Joey spends most of his free time with a slightly disreputable classmate named Vlad. Ben gets along fine with the apartment’s adults . . . but doesn’t seem to realize his idle daytime conversation is a nightmare for Kate, trying to write her latest novel on the other side of the living room.
Time moves along. Ben and George’s reunion remains somewhere vaguely in the future. One of the movie’s loveliest moments happens when Elliot and Kate’s doorbell rings unexpectedly, and George is on the doorstep, quietly weeping in his need to cross the city unannounced and spend the night in his husband’s arms.
Lithgow and Molina are the best thing about Love Is Strange. The actors are brilliantly, movingly believable as a longtime, loving couple who can shift with the ease of a breeze between carping and cuddles. Their bond feels deeply lived-in. At its best, the movie recalls Leo McCarey’s devastating Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), starring Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore as an old couple who also learn the painful way that growing old together is harder than the storybooks pretend.
The second-best thing here is the texture director and cowriter Ira Sachs (Leave the Lights On) creates. He raises questions — what’s up with Joey and Vlad, why is Elliot never at home or always on the phone? — and never resolves them in pat ways. Weirdly, though, this strategy of evasiveness starts to work against the movie. There’s something close to smug self-congratulation in its willed smallness and discretion. It’s like a short story that’s overly praised for its delicate sense of restraint — underscored throughout by tasteful piano music — but leaves you unfulfilled at the end.
Still, I suppose the low-key approach can be seen as a positive sign. No one is asking if Lithgow and Molina are gay in real life, or speculating that “playing gay” might be bad career moves. Both things would have happened 15, even 10 years ago. And Love Is Strange would have been marginalized then as an “issue” movie, saddled with the expectation that it somehow represents the “gay community” (as if such a thing exists). In context, then, in terms of social progress, Love Is Strange’s minimal approach is major news.
Another film this week can also make you think of how times have changed. A Summer’s Tale is a “lost” work from French auteur Éric Rohmer (My Night at Maude’s, Pauline on the Beach, etc.). Part of his tetralogy of season-based films, this 1996 entry is only now getting a stateside release. Maybe there’s a reason for the delay.
Reed thin and gawky, Melvil Poupaud plays Gaspard, who counts down the summer days, hanging out at a friend’s place in the French beach town of Dinard. He’s waiting for Lena, his sort-of-maybe-not-really girlfriend, to join him. However, she seems more interested in traveling elsewhere with her cousins. So Gaspard wanders the seaside alone, until he’s befriended by a waitress named Margot (Amanda Langlet).
Margot has her own boyfriend, currently working in the South Pacific. She and Gaspard feel safe enough to while away their free time discussing their respective relationships in the kind of extended, cinematic walk-and-talks patented by Rohmer long before Aaron Sorkin turned the convention into the prime dramatic mode of The West Wing.
The ever-smiling, girlish Margot urges Gaspard to find a summer romance in Lena’s absence, and he winds up dating Solene (Gwenaëlle Simon). She’s appealing, but she also has “principles” that keep him at arm’s length. Then there’s Lena herself, who belatedly arrives and proves to be the epitome of self-obsession and manipulation; you wonder why any man would put up with her (at least for more than one night).
On the other hand, Margot is such a smiley, wise, idealized girl-woman, she’s insufferable in a whole other way. A lot of talk goes down in A Summer’s Tale, but pretty much nothing happens. Director-writer Rohmer and his cast are attuned to the self-important second-guessings of 20-somethings trying to assert their true romantic and intellectual identities. But this sort of navel-gazing wears thin swiftly.
When I was about Gaspard’s age, watching my first Rohmer movies, I remember the sense of initiation — not only into this particular brand of French cinema, but also into the idea that the nuances and caprices of human emotion were well worth talking about for hours. But my youth is gone, and so is Rohmer (he died in 2010), and so, to a large degree, is this kind of filmmaking. Some parts of the past are impossible to revisit. Back then, the slightness of Rohmer’s films seemed charming. Now, the charm just seems slight.
Love Is Strange. With John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Marisa Tomei, Darren E. Burrows. Directed by Ira Sachs. Rated R. 94 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema and AMC Phipps Plaza.
A Summer’s Tale. With Melvil Poupaud, Amanda Langlet. Directed by Éric Rohmer. In French with subtitles. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.