Beginners (15); Break My Fall (18)
dirs: Mike Mills; Kanchi Wichmann
Love may be a many-splendoured thing, but love stories in modern cinema are rarely a very splendid thing, with most on-screen unions blatantly engineered in the editing suite or the offices of Creative Artists Agency. For a love story to work in cinema, it's vital that we fall in love, too, and yearn for a happy ending as emphatically as if it were our own hearts on the line. The makers of two new love stories, Beginners and Break My Fall, deserve a box of Black Magic straight off the bat for presenting couples who clearly have something deeper than a publicist's strategy invested in their on-camera relationship.
A tentative romance blossoms in Beginners between two lost souls in LA: Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a graphic artist, and Anna (Mélanie Laurent), a lonely actress. They hook up at a fancy-dress party where Anna can only communicate via pen and paper, having contracted laryngitis. You've heard of the romcom convention of the "meet cute": this is the meet mute.
Anna's masculine get-up (shirt, tie, grey suit) provides an early sign that the movie has an incurable case of the Annie Halls. Another is its collage-like texture, which incorporates flashbacks, photographic montages and the sort of zaniness consistent with any movie that subtitles the thoughts of a Jack Russell terrier. Although Beginners strongly suggests a PowerPoint presentation by Michel Gondry, the tone is kept the right side of winsome by the presence of Oliver's 75-year-old father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), who is diagnosed with cancer after coming out in the wake of his wife's death.
During his brief journey from closet to grave, Hal's explosion on to the scene is like a poignant spin on Brewster's Millions: the enthusiastic membership of a gay men's choir, the taking of a younger lover (Goran Visnjic) and the wearing of neckerchiefs are among his prizes as he frantically splurges every last bit of gay coinage he has in that small window before death.
We may not always like Hal, but we believe in him, and not only because of Plummer's magnificent and delicately textured performance. The film also carefully contextualises Hal; we get a brief history of gay liberation, while one of the many deadpan montages features Oliver introducing a still of a public toilet with the words, "This is the only place my father could have sex in 1955", and musing on the proximity of the site of his parents' wedding to where Ginsberg wrote "Howl".
The writer-director, Mike Mills, proposes connections between Hal's clandestine life and his son's inability to commit, but you don't feel it in your bones, despite Oliver's theory about what separates the two generations: "Our good fortune enables us to feel a sadness that our parents didn't have time for." We still hope Oliver and Anna find happiness, but it is Hal who gives this handsomely shot but rather thin picture its ballast, as well as its richness. He's like an ornate Gaudí in a landscape of skyscrapers.
When a film portrays a relationship that's dead in the water, the audience may feel itself stagnating along with the characters. The early parts of the British picture Break My Fall mainly depict two lovers, Liza (the excellent Kat Redstone) and Sally (Sophie Anderson), skulking around their Hackney flat, or crying through their band's rehearsals while the drummer keeps a faithful beat (very Fleetwood Mac, that). But stick with it. This modest film, shot so cheaply that to call it low-budget would suggest misleadingly high production values, springs to life with quirky writing and characterisation, and a more confident second half.
There are moments here that crackle with wit, such as Liza's encounter with an overconfident lesbian recently jilted by her married lover ("That's what the 'B' in LGBT stands for") or a Five Easy Pieces-style run-in with a waitress who insists on charging for an extra fork ("You've got a cutlery disorder!"). The film's twilight world of musicians, rent boys and coke-heads is a plangent one. Mooching around on a rooftop at 4am, one character talks wistfully of "a whole other world out there of people who go to bed at night and get up in the morning". A drive in the early hours leads to
a petrol station where the light has died in the first letter of a Shell sign.