Leveling the Field
By R. Kurt Osenlund
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics | 'Ira and Viva' painting by Boris Torres
A fleeting shot of a tattoo speaks volumes in Love Is Strange, and it’s an image that, according to director Ira Sachs, often leaves viewers “thrown.” The tattoo is seen on the arm of a showering Elliot (Darren E. Burrows), whose aging uncle Ben (John Lithgow) is one-half of the gay couple at the film’s center (the other half, George, is played by Alfred Molina). Ostensibly, Elliot is your standard upright workaholic — a man who struggles to break away from his cell phone, even at dinner, and whose stay-at-home writer wife, Kate (Marisa Tomei), seems to know more about their teenaged son, Joey (Charlie Tahan), than Elliot ever will.
Of the many diverse characters in this uniquely nuanced drama, Elliot is one whom audiences may think they have pegged, which is why the reveal of his inked-up shoulder delivers such impact. Suddenly, this stern, if liberal, working man, this head of a New York family and household, flashes a stamp of implied rebellion and past adventures — things no one would know unless they bothered to ask and learn.
“That tattoo was unexpected,” Sachs says. “I asked Elliot to take his shirt off, so I knew it was there, but it wasn’t what I was after. There’s a Jean Renoir quote that’s been important to me as a filmmaker — and I’ve never been able to find it, but I still believe he said it — ‘When you’re shooting on a set, open the windows and let the world in.’ I try to position myself there.”
Of course, Sachs is largely referencing the embrace of happenstance, but those open windows, and by extension Sachs’s open mind, are what help make Love Is Strange a post-gay landmark in cinema. Ben and George may be the lead characters, and their modest wedding may be the introductory event that binds the subsequent plot threads, but Sachs, along with his cowriter, Mauricio Zacharias (who also shared scripting duties on Sachs’s Keep the Lights On), present a work that’s universally empathetic and keen to understand all people — something more progressive and pro-equality by default than by design. Whether objectively exploring the subtle, unwitting homophobia of Kate, or even challenging the audience to decipher the true nature of Joey’s relationship with a close male friend, the film leads with the healthy notion that no one should ever presume to fully know anyone else.
The first time I saw Love Is Strange, and the first time I spoke to Sachs about it, was at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, the movie’s second major stop after its Sundance premiere, and an event that’s welcomed Sachs for three of his prior films, including Keep the Lights On. It was on the eve of the Sochi Olympics, and there was no mistaking a certain indoor/outdoor juxtaposition. Not far from Potsdamer Platz, the festival’s epicenter, LGBT activists were gathered beneath the Brandenburg Gate, rainbow flags in hand, preparing to protest in front of the Russian Embassy. Shortly thereafter, inside a dark, quiet theater, festivalgoers were held rapt by Love Is Strange, a movie that with its very title conveys that all love is twisty and enigmatic, not just “queer” love. The dual activities comprised a snapshot of opposite ways to subvert oppression: You can command visibility and justice in the streets, or you can accomplish both by allowing queerness to permeate a dramatic narrative with near-complete normalcy.