If he hadn’t already used the title, writer-director Ira Sachs might have called his new film “Married Life.” But since he did, this one is titled “Love Is Strange,” and proves a quietly compelling, remarkably touching study of a couple that’s been together for decades but is forced apart by financial difficulties. The story bears a striking resemblance to one of Leo McCarey’s best films, “Make Way for Tomorrow” (1937), in which Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi played a husband and wife whose chilly treatment by their self-absorbed children as money troubles threaten their ability to stay together was heartbreaking. (That same theme was later treated by Yasujiro Ozu in his masterful “Tokyo Story.”) Sachs and his co-writer Mauricio Zacharias take a gentler view than McCarey, or even Ozu. In this case family and friends try to help, though their efforts can only only mitigate, not resolve, the disruption. And it just happens that the couple in question are gay men.
Ben (John Lithgow), a retired painter, and George (Alfred Molina), a teacher, have been together for decades, and their initial scenes, as they bustle about their small New York City apartment readying themselves for an occasion, provide a perfectly calibrated portrait of long-time domesticity. The occasion, it’s soon revealed, is their marriage, finally allowed by law. The ceremony is a small outdoor one attended by, among others, Ben’s loving nephew Elliot (Darren Burrows), his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and their teen son Joey (Charlie Tahan), as well as friends and neighbors like cops Ted and Roberto (Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez) who live down the hall.
Unfortunately, the wedding has an unanticipated result. George has been teaching music at a Catholic school for years, and the administration has happily overlooked his relationship with Ben. But the priest headmaster (John Cullum) informs him that the diocese considers their marriage ceremony a public violation of church policy, and that he’s being dismissed. The loss of his salary means that he and Ben won’t be able to afford the mortgage on their co-op, and the only member of the family who could accommodate them both until they find a new place lives out in Poughkeepsie, much too far for such committed Manhattanites.
So they split up, Ben going to live with Elliot and his family in their Brooklyn apartment—he’ll take the lower bunk in Joey’s room—and George sleeping on the couch at Ted and Roberto’s place. Though the hosts are cordial, things aren’t completely satisfactory. While Ben tries not to be a bother, Joey’s upset over the loss of his privacy, and the opportunity it affords for him to study with his best friend Vlad (Eric Tabach), a frequent visitor. Kate, meanwhile, is trying to concentrate on her writing, and Ben’s chattiness proves a distraction. George, on the other hand, finds himself out of place in the raucous world of Ted and Roberto, who host parties almost every night and are devoted to inscrutable causes like “Game of Thrones.”
The major problem, however, is the pain of separation for both men, who have come to depend on one another’s companionship in the way that loving couples do. A scene in which George visits Ben and stays the night is a model of beautifully observed restraint; no grandstanding for effect here. That same inclination to understatement that’s all the more wrenching for avoiding mawkishness carries over to the final scenes, which shun an opportunity to go for the jugular and instead allow both characters and viewers to mourn quietly and privately, as Tahan’s Joey does.
“Love Is Strange”—a title that refers not to the affection between Ben and George, but to the love all the characters express toward one another—is a film of intricate emotions and small gestures that, taken together, express wonderment at the profundity of human relationships while resolutely eschewing melodramatic excess. One can quibble over the manner in which Sachs and Zacharias have elected to resolve the story’s central problem—something that amounts to a deus ex machine stroke that allows Ben and George to be together again (though one easily forgives the twist when it leads to wonderful scenes in a bar and at a recital). But one can’t deny that the film is acted with extraordinary delicacy and integrity by Lithgow and Molina, who embody characters rich and full individually and even more so in tandem. The supporting cast is superb as well, with Tomei and Tahan doing particularly subtle and distinctive work as figures that, in their own separate ways, are as intriguing as Ben and George. The technical package is modest but assured, capturing the ambience of the city as expertly as Woody Allen ever did. Christos Voudoris’ cinematography and the editing by Michael Taylor and Affonso Goncalves are especially notable in complementing Sachs’ unrushed, insinuating directorial style. And the music score, consisting entirely of pieces by Chopin, adds another layer of feeling without overwhelming the narrative.
There’s a lovely moment in “Love Is Strange” when Ben, talking on the phone with George, remarks of his relatives, “Sometimes when you live with people, you know them better than you care to.” Sachs, Lithgow, Molina and their cohorts have brought to life characters so real and affecting that we actually feel we’ve lived with them—but we’d like to spend even more time with and get to know even better.