How the Danger Sinks and Swells
Editor’s note: Alexander the Last is part of a collaboration between IFC and SXSW, bringing selected titles from the Festival to TV via “IFC Festival Direct,” on demand. Available as of March 14th.
Alexander the Last begins with a wedding. It’s a mock ceremony, really, acted by two sisters. After Alex (Jess Weixler) recites more or less standard vows (with some help when she forgets a word or two), Hellen (Amy Seimetz) begins her part, having written her own version of the ceremony: “I Hellen,” she says, looking into her sister’s wet eyes, “Take you, Alex, to be my beautiful, wonderful wife, because no one else understands me the way you do.”
It’s a sweet, touching, and oddly intimate moment, and it’s not completely clear—now or later—just what it means, whether the sisters are recalling childhood games, expressing earnest desires, or imagining an alternative world where each might feel mirrored and reaffirmed by the other’s “understanding.” As the scene alludes to the general hope of marriage, the cultural and emotional weight such a contract bears, it also sets up the particular familiarity and trust shared by Alex and Hellen, whose romantic travails will make up the film’s plot. The scene raises questions that will be fundamental for the film: can love be real, lasting, or unconditional? Can it be faked?
The credits sequence that follows this almost-too-close moment features a series of antic, faux-serious images, as the sisters and their romantic partners have pies planted in their faces and proceed to smear the filling over their hairlines and pretty cheeks, as if styling themselves, both clownlike and strangely vulnerable. As they work the custardy goo like makeup, the women look directly into the camera, their portraits simultaneously solemn and comic, self-aware and spontaneous. This unresolved mix of honesty and performance is one of the central tensions in “mumblecore,” and writer-director Joe Swanberg here frames that tension explicitly.
Alex is an actress, newly married to a musician, Eliot (Justin Rice, guitarist for Bishop Allen). Still caught up in first-blushy love, they lounge in bed with limbs entwined, affectionate and open: “I know it’s immature,” Alex says, “I’m not actually asking you this, this is a fake question. Do you love me?” Even before Eliot can assure her that he does, of course, she answers her own question, “You would be retarded to marry me if you didn’t love me.” That the question might be “fake” makes it also “real,” a means to confess insecurity and need, but not truly.
Alex has more chances to perform her questions when Eliot goes on the road with his band (she urges him to tell her, “I’m gonna ache, I’ll think about you when I’m singing”), and she’s cast in a play opposite the very Eliot-like Jamie (Barlow Jacobs). As they dig into their roles, which include an intimate, heavy-breathing sex scene on stage, Alex and Jamie also work through what may be a mutual attraction. At the same time, he becomes involved with Hellen, at Alex’s suggestion. The relationships are both complicated and simple, alluding to French romancey sort of roundelays, but less fantastic, perhaps because the film’s primary perception is Alex’s. As much as she might dream of forever-lustful-adoring love, she is also faced with compromises and choices, minor and life-changing, exasperatingly unfixed.
She flirts with Jamie but remains uncertain what she wants, and so she articulates her not-quite-desires in actor-talk: “You worry sometimes,” she confesses about herself, “that you’re being too zealous.” And then she shifts the you back onto Jamie: “Because you have a tendency to lay back sometimes as a person, I always feel like I’m just rushing forward at people.” She tells him that because he’s “solid,” she knows he’s not scared. But his lack of commitment—to her or to Hellen—may be real and not just an affect. Though Alex rebukes Hellen for “playing games” with her own boyfriend and Jamie, she’s doing the same, just not quite having “real” sex with Jamie.
One set-piece crosscuts between Jamie and Hellen in sexual throes and Jamie and Alex rehearsing. On stage, the sex scene is awkward and artificial. Their director (Jane Adams) fumbles with their legs and arranges their faces to angle just so, hoping to convey the reality of the characters’ desire. “You can’t fake that,” she says, though of course, this is exactly what you do daily, whether in efforts to please partners, convince yourself, or make right what seems wrong. “How are we gonna fake that,” the director worries, “at this point downstage? If he doesn’t have his underwear down and a full erection, then where are we?” The playwright (Josh Hamilton) insists that his vision is crucial and translatable: “However we get to the point that the audience is seeing something more intimate and more real than they usually see…” he trails off. Indeed, this has been a project for mumblecore, to convey intimacy as reality, to make performance persuasive, not fake. That this film makes the problem rather meta might be seen as a step away from or deeper into that project. Does poking at the edges of the representational process, performing a lack of polish and drawing attention to the artifice, reinforce the artifice or expose it as such?
Such questions are hardly unique to mumblecore (neorealism has asked them before, as has grunge and punk), but that doesn’t make them any less interesting. In Alexander the Last, the questions color Alex’s experiences, as the film renders her subjective state in careful compositions: she’s blurry-backgrounded to Jamie’s intent texting, until she walks forward to lean down and look into his face, close, desirous, clearly focused, and just as quickly, withdrawn; she and Hellen spend a day shopping and park-walking with their mutual object of affection, Hellen’s photos forcing intimacies and also revealing the fact of their posing.
Much like the theatrical piece, the melodrama of the film takes on a more or less familiar shape, as betrayal leads to remorse and reconciliation, for now. As Alex struggles with what’s real and what’s fake, she comes to terms with what connects her with Eliot. When he shows her photos he’s taken of pizza boxes collected on the road, she looks bored and distracted; when he reads to her from Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Bells,” she listens raptly. “In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire,” he recites, “Leaping higher, higher, higher, / With a desperate desire,” the bells clang and tinkle and clamor. And after all the drama, what’s real is only what’s in front of you.