Working again with a DP borrowed from the Greek new wave and favoring an elliptical, lower-case strategy that evokes the likes of Claire Denis and Olivier Assayas, Memphis-born Ira Sachs has become one of our most European filmmakers. But he also understands the purpose and power of old-fashioned Hollywood high concept, of delicately detailing within well-worn grooves.
Love Is Strange invokes McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow to craft a contemporary fable of separation: aging West Villagers Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) marry after several decades of cohabitation, only to find themselves without a home when the Catholic school at which George works as a music teacher fires him for making his homosexuality public. Since none of their friends have spare bedrooms, they have to separate whilst searching for a new apartment, with George crashing on a neighbor’s couch and Ben sharing a bedroom with his niece’s teenaged son.
Sachs doesn’t subvert his tearjerker enterprise so much as soften and parcel out emotion, empathizing no more with the distraught couple than with their hosts, whose lives are no less inconvenienced, or interesting. And though the conceit would seem to invite overplaying by its headlining hams, Sachs instead elicits their finest work in years, with Lithgow mining deepening fragility, and Molina displaying the somber comportment of a man unrepentantly in love.