"I'm no longer in that phase of being 'casually miserable'," director Ira Sachs told me affably, following the screening of his latest film Love is Strange at the Deauville American Film Festival. He smiled. "My previous films, such as Keep the Lights On, were psychoanalytical, focusing on conflicts, especially with one's own self." He gestured with tense hands to illustrate. "I am in a different stage right now. Love is Strange reflects that. My characters are comfortable with themselves. The film is a portrait of where I am now."
Love is Strange was one of my favorite films in Competition at Deauville this year. It is the story of what happens to a gay married couple when one of the couple loses his job as a teacher in a Catholic high school, and the two have to move out of their New York City apartment (now unaffordable), to sleep separately on a bunk bed and a couch. What I most liked about the film was the boost of positive energy it gave in a festival characterized by dark films about alienation, horror and teenage angst. For contrary to expectations, the film is not about the couple suffering from prejudice and eviction; it is a warm comic tale celebrating community (the extended New York "family" that helps this couple) and the luck of love.
The striking characteristic of the film is its low-key realism, reminiscent of the style of one of the director's own favorite masters, John Cassavetes. The movie opens with the wedding ceremony of the couple--played with charisma by Alfred Molina and John Lithgow--with their relatives and friends toasting them with superlative epithets. This celebratory air soon changes, however, when these same relatives and friends must lodge the newly homeless men. One of the men, George, resorts to living with a friend in the suburbs, while his husband Ben takes shelter with his nephew's family. The nephew's wife and son, once celebratory, soon sicken of Ben's presence: "Well, you don't have to spend all day with him!" the wife screams to her husband. During this episode, we watch (and identify with) how easy it is for an unwanted respectful guest, reliant on the charity of others, to lose dignity and bearings, and not know where he belongs.
And yet this turn in affection is not betrayal in the King Lear sense: it is simply realistic. The family members, who actively contribute to making this man feel unwanted, are justified in feeling invaded. The son no longer has his room to himself. The wife cannot concentrate on her writing. The conversations are the kind we can recognize in our own families; the rolled eyes, even towards a loved one, are comfortably familiar. No finger-pointing at evil here: every character is simply expansively human.
We also get a sense that things can always change: relationships evolve, luck happens, and throughout the two men support and love each other--perhaps even more deeply and appreciatively than before. The strangeness about love is that it is an enduring force.
In fact, even death cannot kill it. We feel that the legacy of this couple will continue beyond their lifetime, in the hearts of those who knew them. The final image is that of radiant sun shining on the young nephew as he strolls in New York City with his own new love.
Would Ira agree that his film has a spiritual meaning?
"I am an atheist," Ira responded. "Yet I believe that everything we do does leave a trace. Of course, Ben will leave a trace on his nephew Joey. Everyone leaves a trace. I am interested in legacy and in generational impact and in honoring our parents. As a middle aged person watching the disappearance of the people in the generation just before me, I feel that the dead leave in fact, but not in actuality. I made another film called Last Address, about a group of New York artists who died of AIDS, focusing on the last place they lived before they died. The place contains absence, and yet the artist's work continues. In making this film, I was very engaged in the work of these artists, Felix Gonzalez Torres, Robert Mapplethorpe, Reinaldo Arenas.... Those people are gone and yet I carry their work with me."
As for the ambiguous title of his latest film, "Love is Strange," Ira laughed warmly. "Alfred Molina, when he read the script, thought of the title in terms of love being magical. Love is unique, whatever form it takes, with lovers, friends or family. No one definition of love exists outside from one's individual experience of it."
What becomes clear is that "family" networks of love, however defined, are of prime importance for Ira Sachs. His film, he explained with passion, is not just about the couple, but about every character in the movie, and the connections--and love--forged between them.
The connections existed even behind the set.
"I spent a long time choosing the extras in the film," Ira continued. "To choose people who really would be connected with this community. In the wedding scene, two of the extras actually, by chance, knew each other. They had not seen each other since graduate school in the 1950s."
How about Molina and Lithgow?
"One reason I chose them is that they have been good friends for twenty years," Ira quipped.
With a smile, the director stood up to go--for his final dinner in France before returning to New York. Not such an exotic event. It is the third time that Ira Sachs had been invited to join the French film world. In the last ten years, he has had two other films screen at the Deauville American Film Festival.
"I like coming to this festival," he said in parting. "It's a chance to connect with the community of American independent film directors."
By coincidence, I too turned out to be tangentially connected with this community. A few years ago, I met up for dinner in New York with the director's sister, Lynne, also a filmmaker, with whom I once, long ago, went to college.