Sometime last year I listened to a podcast released for This American Life, and amongst the multilimbed miscellany which a weekly episode comprises of, a story addressing the issue of bureaucratic discrimination against same-sex couples galvanised my interest. It was — for want of a more discerning term, one less couched in journalistic jargon — the angle which engaged me: I understand and recognise and regret that, even today, LGBTQ couples (in addition to those whom subscribe to alternative sexualities or gender roles), be they married or involved in a de facto relationship, experience systemic prejudice in virulent and substantive ways, and this both saddens and angers me; but I don’t believe I heretofore ever appreciated the marginalisation and antagonism inflicted on gay couples in the specific context of the contemporary real estate market. I found the subject fascinating, in part, because of that very specificity: there’s a transdisciplinary appraisal at work, when a journalist interrogates the way in which an industry we take for granted in our communities devalues individuals on the basis of how they choose to identify. I’d been previously interested, for reasons abstract to myself, in the ways that the contemporary real estate market has (and continues to) ostracise and victimise people of colour — if I were honest, I’d concede that it likely has something to do with my admiration for the politicised insights about this subject unearthed in writer/showrunner David Simon’s Treme, and consequently, the Lisa Belkin-authored work of essayistic reportage on the New York public housing scandal of 1988, Show Me A Hero, which Simon next intends to adapt to screen — but the plight and the silent trivilialisation of the gay experience in the contemporary context of affordable housing is an issue I’d managed to elide from my thoughts.
Then, not more than a few months ago, I heard about Love Is Strange: the fictional story of an older same-sex couple, portrayed by Alfred Molina and John Lithgow respectively, who find themselves beset upon by the need to live apart, after sharing their life together for thirty-nine years, because they cannot locate affordable housing in inner-city New York. More exactingly, the story of a gay romance predicated on the dramatic conceit that a same-sex couple are estranged from each other, because the American rental market won’t accommodate two men under the same roof, without first sending them scrabbling for possibilities beyond their professional and financial means. This was such an idiosyncratic and topical riff on the conventional three-act-structure Hollywood love story: a romance drama whereby it isn’t a fatal flaw or an unmediated distinction in the protagonists’s personalities which invites conflict and heartbreak, but an evidently invisible system which seeks to problematise their love. Best yet, the film was conceived as a comedy; which is to say, it would address its themes through the indie-cinema lens of droll, amusing character studies á la Alexander Payne. And yet, now that I have finally seen Love Is Strange, all I can summon to mind in defining it, is that it is not really a comedy at all: the film is a tragedy expressed in minor key.
This is not to profess that Love Is Strange is lacking for humour: the film is witty, in a wry and unassuming way. One scene involves John Lithgow’s character, the beatific and daffy seventy-one-year-old outsider artist, Ben — who may or may not be suffering from a bad ticker or chronic fatigue — explaining to the luminous Marisa Tomei, his daughter-in-law Kate (or honourary ‘niece’, as he prefers to go by the moniker ‘Uncle Ben’), that it’s impossible for a creative practitioner to concentrate when in the company of others. The sting is derived from the fact that he is synopsising Kate’s experience without realising it: she is a writer, and Ben moans and confides to her while she sits rigid at her desk, thwarted in her attempts to write.
This is funny stuff, but I can’t divorce this film from the undercurrent of melancholy which impinges on its keenly-observed witticisms; there is a solemnity at its heart, which occasionally renders the film throughout as schematic or freighted with a sorrow it hasn’t yet earned. The same can’t be said of Molina or Lithgow, however, both of whom have never been better, in their own soulfully-delineated performances, each as one half of a profound and loving partnership.
There’s never a moment that I didn’t buy their ardent romantic conviction to each other, and that’s wholly contingent upon Molina’s and Lithgow’s rigorous inhabitation of their roles. Rarely has any older couple in a romantic drama been so meticulously and intimately characterised; I can’t claim to have seen (endured?) Haneke’s Amour, but I have to emphasise that, for a small independent tragicomedy, Molina and Lithgow are definitively refusing to pander to the cheap seats. Their love is our love, while it is disclosed and discovered onscreen. Their devotion to each other is a subdued heroism which should compel anyone in a monogamous adult relationship to strive to emulate it, in his or her own way. Their bright, ebullient faces reflect back a baffled gratitude which is marled and shadowed with secret pain: How lucky we are to have found each other when we needed it the most; how short the time thirty-nine years affords us to reciprocate each others’ affection now that we might be divided by money, by prejudice, by families, by the quadrants of a city which ever seeks to beleaguer us in spiritual Poughkeepsie.