Love Is Strange
John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Marisa Tomei, Darren Burrows, Charlie Tahan, Cheyenne Jackson
(Sony Pictures Classics)
US theatrical: 22 Aug 2014 (Limited release)
“Always, always, you must focus on the instrument you’re playing,” George (Alfred Molina) instructs a young piano student (Dovie Lepore Currin). “Listen to the metronome. You can’t create your own rhythm to Chopin.” The little girl looks not nearly so flustered as you might expect her to look; rather, she pauses, takes a breath, and begins to play, again.
The child’s poise in this scene in Love is Strange is striking, at once charming and admirable, an indication not only of her dedication but also her understanding of the art and business of music, at least partly a function of her work with George, who treats her with respect and without drama. This scene, set in the girl’s impeccably appointed, expensively tasteful home, takes but a couple of minutes in the film, which is generally more focused on George’s relationship with his husband Ben (John Lithgow), a painter: their marriage comprises the movie’s first moments, after which they endure and enjoy various consequences of that decision. Most of these have to do with multiple adjustments, beginning with George’s loss of his longtime teaching job at a Roman Catholic school, because the marriage has made unavoidably public the fact of his being gay.
This particular shift means that the couple has to give up their Manhattan apartment and find temporary housing in separate places, with friends and relatives who mean well but also have complicated lives that are muddled by the additional bodies in their own spaces and routines. Love is Strange portrays intersecting assumptions and desires, revelations and resentments, with lovely work by cinematographer Christos Voudouris offering a range of perspectives. This means that even the simplest of plot points—for instance, the piano lesson—might make you think again. Both George and his student have very different reasons to worry in this scene, indicated by their furrowed brows and efforts not to look at each other exactly, but instead to focus on their at-hand tasks. She means to learn her instrument and he to pay rent.
Now taking on as many students as he might at their homes, George is framed at this moment by a mostly audio flashback to the letter he wrote to his former students’ parents, sent out after he was fired. As the letter suggests, most already knew he was gay, and no one, apparently, worried this might affect his work as choir director. He understands the institutional decision, knows that his outrage at its hypocrisy has no effect, and so takes this alternative channel to making his case, to people who may or may not be outraged but whose own lives will proceed without noticing the earthquake that has altered his. The film makes the tension between placid life surfaces and roiling emotional effects clear in the montage that accompanies George’s voiceover. In another context, this strategy might seem conventional; here, it’s heartbreaking.
That’s not to say that Love Is Strange is a perfect film. George and Ben are cast into new —“only temporary,” multiple people say more than once—living arrangements that lurch from poignant to sitcommish, George sleeping on the couch of his and Ben’s erstwhile downstairs neighbors, NYPD officers Ted (Cheyenne Jackson) and Roberto (Manny Perez) and Ben now in Brooklyn, on the lower bunk bed in Joey’s (Charlie Tahan) room, Joey being the increasingly discomfited son of Ben’s nephew, Elliot (Darren Burrows) and Kate (Marisa Tomei).
As Ben comes to see (and tries to ignore, at least before he tries to help, unsuccessfully), the boy has too many good reasons for his turmoil, even apart from being a teenage boy. And so again, the film makes visible the ways that misunderstandings might occur, their sources in fears and silence and institutions, and also their effects. If Kate or Elliot remain distracted by their own tensions, and inclined to blame their distractedness on Ben’s presence, a point—again—made not so much by dialogue but by compositions showing the diurnal clutter and many door and window frames that make up their lives in the apartment and elsewhere.
Space does seem to open up when Ben takes his paints and easel up to the roof of Elliot and Kate’s building. Here the frame goes wide, showing other rooftops and windows and antennae, as well as sky. If Ben appears to be focusing on Vlad (Eric Tabach), Joey’s cocky and charismatic classmate as a portrait subject, his canvas, proceeding slowly, shows that he is also looking at that backdrop, so expansive, so haphazard, so New York. His picture reminds you of the subjective nature of experience, but also the generosity it can allow, the view that might go wider rather than narrow, the original rhythm you can create, at least when you’re not trying to play Chopin.
This brings us back, briefly, to the little girl. Granted, she doesn’t take up much screen time or emotional space, but she does signify that everyone in the film and watching it might see their worlds according to their own frames, their own experiences, their own hopes. Her youthful grace and composure make another point, inadvertently, concerning the MPPA R rating for Love Is Strange, which has generated some conversation. What about this film might warrant this cautionary rating for the ratings board, beyond George and Ben’s gayness? The hypocrisy of this designation is of a piece with the hypocrisy the film observes and quietly challenges. It’s less strange than familiar, disappointing, and yes, outrageous.