Film Review: Death Becomes Us

Love Is Strange (2014)
Runtime: 94 minutes
Director: Ira Sachs
Written by Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias

Recent reviews of Ira Sach’s Love Is Strange, distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, have noted the peculiarity of the film’s minimal focus on gay marriage. I found marriage to be the driving force of the story. The film opens with the marriage of a long-committed gay couple; Alfred Molina plays George and John Lithgow is Ben. By marrying, the gay couple hopes to legitimize their relationship. Marriage is an expectation for long-committed straight couples, and it is becoming an expectation for queer couples. As a result of this pressure, George and Ben lose it all—their home, their job, even each other.

Shortly after marrying, George loses his job as a music teacher for a Catholic School. We learn that he has been out to his colleagues, parents, and students, but the final straw comes when he marries his partner and word of it gets back to the archdiocese; he is terminated effective immediately. As a result, George and Ben cannot afford to continue living in their Manhattan home. After discussing the situation with family, close friends and neighbors, the couple sells their place and they search for an affordable apartment in the area. In the meantime, they find other accommodations with friends and family. Oddly, they’re not taken in as a married couple.

They are inexplicably split—George moves in with a gay couple in the neighborhood, and Ben moves in with his nephew’s family, Marisa Tomei (Kate) and teenage son, Charlie Tahan (Joey). The couple continues to search for apartments and tries to go on about their lives separately. George gives private music lessons and Ben continues to paint. Being apart is a strain on them. They see each other but the physical distance night after night is lonely, after spending 39 years together it is almost unbearable. The separation allows viewers to see the effect of the environment on each character. George inhabits a queer space, while Ben inhabits a straight space.

The film spends a great deal of time illustrating the disruption caused by Ben in the lives of Kate and Joey—his nephew’s heterosexual family. It becomes immediately clear that Ben is not welcomed. Those who occupy this space do not offer hope or solace; they move him from room to room or isolate him entirely. Kate, who works at home as a novelist, cannot focus on her writing because Ben engages her with small talk. This happens several times. And at times, Kate seeks refuge in her bedroom or she sends Ben to the roof to paint en plein air. When Ben is not getting in Kate’s way, he occupies the study space of Joey and his classmate, Vlad. Ben shares a bunk bed in Joey’s room, and even when only Kate occupies the rest of the house, Joey asserts a desire to use his room while Ben is taking a nap. Ben does not have any space for himself.

Later, Ben distracts Vlad from studying by having him pose for a painting. Joey finds Ben and Vlad on the roof. Joey stares at the painting and says, “that’s so gay,” which is translated for Ben as meaning “stupid.” Joey continues to insult Ben, saying, “If you were any good you wouldn’t be crashing at your nephew’s house.” Kate dismisses the remark as common knowledge that so gay means stupid. No further explanation is offered and Ben is left alone to sit in silence at the kitchen table. Ben is alienated so often that viewers might forget he is staying with his family who praised him and celebrated his marriage to George during the film’s opening scene.

With some similarities to Ben’s world, George finds himself annoyed, his life disrupted, by the space he inhabits. George has a couch to live on with a gay couple. The couple hosts game nights and loud parties regularly, which disrupts George’s quiet demeanor. It is at one party that George strikes up a conversation with a young man. They talk about their current circumstances when George admits he is temporarily homeless. This results in the young man offering George an affordable apartment, which needs to be leased. In this queer space, George encounters some disruptions, which are a palpable contrast to Ben’s environment because unlike Ben, George’s finds friendship and shelter. This environment welcomes him; it gives him a space to occupy and eventually leads him out of homelessness. Here, he can be gay and there is nothing stupid about it.

The final twenty minutes of the film flashes forward. The storyline adds another inexplicable plot twist that reminds viewers of other mainstream films with gay characters that are portrayed as victims. As film historian Vito Russo would acknowledge, there are no happy endings for gay film characters and this film satisfies that cliché. In the film’s final moments, we learn that Ben has died from a fall and George is now alone. Reminiscent of Brokeback Mountain’s final scene of Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) holding Jack Twist’s flannel, here Joey delivers Ben’s final painting and George is left with it as an artifact of his lost companion.

This film should have ended with its previous scene. A last encounter between George and Ben at a bar celebrating their newly found apartment. Each man acknowledges his love for the other. Viewers come to understand their relationship has weathered challenges before and they’ve always come out on top—we’re given hope that this time won’t be any different. George and Ben leave the bar, walk to a subway entrance, and say goodbye before each heads to their separate homes. This scene would end the film on an uplifting moment to balance the characters’ victimization. A line from the 1972 film Boys in the Band comes to mind: “You show me a happy homosexual, and I’ll show you a gay corpse.” I’ve had enough of queer characters being victimized. Queer viewers need to see characters like themselves who survive in the end.

Love Is Strange propagates the pitiable victim, a cliché gay character. The film depicts two gay men who try to get their life back on track after they legitimize their relationship through marriage. Friends and family are dismissive of their marriage and their relationship of 39 years, which sets this film into motion. The marriage of the two characters is essentially erased and meaningless in both gay and straight spaces. Would a straight couple of 39 years be asked to reside in separate homes if they had to abandon the home they’ve occupied for the last four decades? We must acknowledge that these men are separated after being married; the lack of effort to keep them together strikes me as absurd. Yet, it happens. It is the fallout of their marriage that serves to highlight the gay and straight space each character inhabits. Their marriage has consequences, which literally causes a division between them from which they never recover.


Ruben Quesada is the author of Next Extinct Mammal and Exiled from the Throne of Night. His writing has been in Guernica, Boaat, Rattle, The California Journal of Poetics, The Rumpus, The American Poetry Review, Cimarron Review, Superstition Review, and elsewhere. He also edits/curates poetry for Luna Luna Magazine, Cobalt Review, Cossack Review, and Codex Journal.

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