I have always been partial to the Everything But the Girl version of Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange,” with those simple and straightforward lyrics: “Love, love is strange/Many people take it for a game/Once you’ve had it, you’re in an awful fix/’Cause after you’ve had it, you never want to quit.” EBTG’s lead vocalist Tracey Thorn captures the forlorn truth that comes from either having loved and lost or looking back over many years of loving and acknowledging the effort it takes to stay in love.
And that is what comes across in the new film aptly titled Love Is Strange from co-writer (with Mauricio Zacharias) and director Ira Sachs (Keep the Lights On). Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) have been together for years, reaching the obvious point where the initial fervent passion has settled into the reliable comfort of familiar routines and habits. We see Ben, seemingly absent-minded and dithering about, while George steers and guides his partner as they prepare to leave their apartment for an appointment. They emerge on the streets of the city, wandering amid the typical hustle and bustle, on their way to finally making their union official, at least from a bureaucratic standpoint. It is a blessed day.
Of course, we come to realize that their decision has a head-scratching element of strangeness to it as well, because George works as a music teacher for a Catholic school in the Archdiocese of New York, which has allowed George and Ben’s relationship to remain under the radar in a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” state for years, but now can no longer cast a blind eye to them.
Their official union — and the following celebration before an intimate gathering of friends and family — cannot be sanctioned, meaning specifically that George must be relieved of his duties in accordance with church policy.
That reaction sends George and Ben’s lives spiraling out of their control. Without George’s earnings, they cannot afford to remain in their rent-controlled apartment, complete with the accumulated artifacts and memories of the best years of their lives together — music, books, keepsakes from their travels and Ben’s paintings. To survive, the two men (although it is primarily George who makes the decisions) sell the apartment, place their belongings in storage and must live separately, relying on the goodwill of their friends and family who gathered to bless their union.
It becomes apparent that their union was never simply about their commitment to one another; theirs was also a marriage involving their community, who pledged in their own way to love, honor, cherish and support these two people through good times and bad. The bad times start right off the bat, thanks to George’s strangely impractical decision.
It is a curious narrative choice because, on the surface, it feels calculated, too on the nose as a trigger. More importantly, it just seems stupid, too thoughtless for a man like George, even in the current social climate. How could he not have known that school and church officials would respond this way? There are too many instances where districts all over the country are forcing employees to sign contracts, insuring adherence to dogmatic rules. So what was George thinking?
The answer to that question, though, as revealed in the performances by Molina and Lithgow (as well as the cast — especially a wonderfully understated Marisa Tomei), shifts the perspective from the political to the personal. George and Ben have a moment together, once they find themselves living apart, when George comes to visit Ben and as soon as they see each other, the two men collapse into each other. Right then, all of the receding passion rises back, burning fiercely. George and Ben made the choice to marry as recognition and a reminder of that strange and powerful love. It was not merely because they now had the legal right to so do; they did it for themselves, witnesses be damned.
Love Is Strange shows us — whether we happen to be married, in long-term relationships, dating, or single — that love, beyond all of our fairy tale notions, has a remarkably human core. Love lives and breathes, experiences great highs and tragic lows, with its own understanding that, at some point, it will end. Which means love must be willing to embark on its strange journey, and go far beyond practical limits to achieve its lofty aims. (R) Grade: B+ (tt stern-enzi)