According to a Gawker interview with director Ira Sachs, this film was primarily funded by 25 gay men and women who made money in other fields. It portrays part of the gay scene in New York City. For instance, there is a very amusing scene where the two leads visit Julius’, a landmark gay bar in Greenwich Village, where they hustle free drinks by telling the bartender that they were part of the 1966 “Sip-in”, one of the famous LGBT actions that took place before the Stonewall riots. Unlike Sachs’s previous film Keep the Lights On (2012), this one focuses on an exceptionally stable gay relationship. But its ambition is greater than that.
Ben and George (John Lithgow, Alfred Molina) have been a couple for 39 years. After finally getting married in the company of family and friends, their life changes when George, who works as a music teacher at a Catholic school, is fired. It was one thing for the bishop to accept his homosexuality when it wasn’t too obvious, but marriage is too much to take for the church. Since Ben is 71 and retired, their financial situation becomes dire and they decide to sell their Manhattan apartment.
While Ben and George look for somewhere else to live, their relatives are debating where they should stay in the meantime. There’s the option of a house in Poughkeepsie, but it’s too far away from everything else in their lives, so George moves in with friends, two much younger cops, while Ben is staying with a nephew and his family. But the separation takes a toll…
Woody Allen sensibilities
It’s hard to watch this film about middle-class problems and not think of Woody Allen. Sharing similar sensibilities (this is a world where people are devoted to Chopin, painting and French literature), the film is also a complicated love letter to New York City. It is the city where people from all over the world would want to live, but the popularity is changing it. You could always argue that perhaps Ben and George would have been better off if they had simply moved together to Poughkeepsie, but people and life aren’t simple like that.
The struggle to survive the crisis that follows their wedding is not really what makes this a touching and entertaining experience; after all, they’re voluntarily choosing a more difficult path out of it. What makes the film valuable is watching Lithgow and Molina, two actors who’ve known each other for decades, channel that friendship into their performances as the aging couple whose love for each other remains as vibrant as ever. They are perfect, and it’s easy to see what they see in each other; they make it real. The film may have a gay couple at the center, but it’s rarely about gay issues. Sachs’s ambition was to portray three generations. Apart from Ben and George, there’s the former’s nephew and his wife (Darren Burrows, Marisa Tomei), who are struggling with work and the responsibility of being parents to a teenager. There’s also their young son (Charlie Tahan), whose ambiguous relationship with a slightly older boy has his parents worried.
The film details the anxieties and struggles that define different points of life and moves effortlessly to a finale that doesn’t wallow in sentimentality, but leaves the window open to a bright future.
Gay or straight, it is easy for audiences to identify with the timeless love between an older couple, the frustrations of parenthood and the frail searching that comes with being a teen. But universality aside, many minor themes (gay love, living in Manhattan, etc.) combined with a superior cast is what makes the film stand out.
Love is Strange 2014-U.S.-France. 94 min. Color. Produced by Lucas Joaquin, Lars Knudsen, Ira Sachs, Jayne Baron Sherman, Jay Van Hoy. Directed by Ira Sachs. Screenplay: Ira Sachs, Mauricio Zacharias. Cast: John Lithgow (Ben), Alfred Molina (George), Marisa Tomei (Kate), Charlie Tahan, Cheyenne Jackson, Harriet Sansom Harris.
Last word: “I really think that on some level the movie is about education with a small ‘e’. It’s primarily about the story and the characters, and hopefully it’s humorous and entertaining and all those things that you want from a movie. But it’s more deeply about what we teach each other, as individuals, as institutions, and as a culture. I feel like the film reflects a kind of optimism that I have about love, which is intrinsically connected to the changing laws and the changing culture. The film isn’t about the laws themselves, but the kind of joy in the film couldn’t be possible without this change. I think each of us is part of our culture and our time, and we reflect the structural changes in ways that are very intimate and personal.” (Sachs, Slant Magazine)