Meaning of Life weekend, part 1: “Beginners” (2011)
25 June 2011
Certainly one doesn’t need a particular organization of the planets to get into an existential mood, but it’s midsummer, and we here at Feminéma like to mark big seasonal events with some pondering. (Lord, what fools these mortals be!) And if there’s one thing film can help us do, it’s to ponder the big questions. My own star-gazing has been assisted this weekend with two big releases in my teeny home-away-from-home in Central Jersey: Mike Mills’ Beginners (you’ll remember how much I loved Thumbsucker, his first feature) and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which I’ll write about tomorrow if possible. Beginners may flirt with the twee — there are some incredibly cute montages of great dates between Ewan McGregor and Mélanie Laurent in which they rollerskate down a hotel’s hallways or hike in the Hollywood hills; but it’s no rom-com. It’s a serious, ultimately hopeful film with a perfect cast that keep you riveted in every scene.
The specific nexus of problems addressed by Oliver (McGregor) involves love, one’s parents, and death. In a series of vignettes ricocheting back and forth between Oliver’s present and his past, the film is oriented around Oliver’s reconsideration of his parents’ unhappy marriage, his father Hal (Christopher Plummer)’s announcement after his wife’s death that he’s gay, and Hal’s relationship with a lovely, gangly, and hopelessly transparent man named Andy (Goran Visnjic, whom I barely recognized in a floppy haircut and unflattering clothes). Most important, it treats Hal’s illness and death, during which Oliver cared for his father through some wholly realistic and intimate ups and downs. Don’t all of us wrestle with our parents’ relationships when we think about our own? That’s Oliver’s problem; his parents’ unhappiness haunts him such that he can’t keep a girlfriend.
Oliver works as a graphic artist, though he’s suffering some serious blocks following Hal’s death: it seems he cannot help but create a cartoon History of Sadness in panels rather than the cd-cover art he’s been assigned. (Ahem, Mr. Mills: please publish that History, as I found it delightfully perverse.) The art is a neat mirror onto his thoughts. He often says things to himself, which I appreciate: the act of list-making as a bulwark against interior chaos. When he says to himself, “Sex. Life. Healing. Nature. Magic,” he’s reprising something he hears from the beautiful Anna (Laurent), whom he meets-cute at a costume party: “People like us, half of them believe things will never work out. The other half believe in magic.” She says it in a way that reveals more than a little disdain for that latter group; she and Oliver are, decidedly, members of the former who — despite themselves — long, desperately, for magic.
Is it his nature or the specific circumstances of mourning his father that makes Oliver so skittish about relationships? At first it appears that he has simply rejected the kind of marriage his parents endured: not loveless but perpetually dissatisfied, a quality he perceived in them even as a child. (His childhood closeness to his eccentric mother [Mary Page Keller] is displayed beautifully; I wished there had been more.) But the more we plumb his depths, the more we see that he’s managed to repeat his parents’ relationship mistakes, even if he’s avoided a marriage that looks like their relationship on the surface.
In fact, Oliver seems to wonder whether Hal’s late-in-life embrace of his sexual orientation, as well as his eagerness to engage with gay rights movements and communities, indicates that he possessed a capacity for self-understanding that still evades Oliver. In teeny, tiny moments — when the two men bicker over whether “everyone” knows that a rainbow flag indicates gay rights, or whether Hal should tell his lover Andy about the cancer — we see that there are no clear answers to Oliver’s soul-searching and his attempts to understand his father.
Walking out of the theater, my partner nailed it best: as he put it, Beginners is a film that might have failed in someone else’s hands. But between Mills’ gentle and serious vision, a terrific editing job, and the perfect and subtle acting of every single member of the cast — and here let me beg the heavens: please let me go through my next existential crisis in bed with Mélanie Laurent and Ewan McGregor — the film balances light and dark, whimsical and heartbreaking, and the interaction between repression and self-revelation. It’s elegantly done. Even the scenes with the needy little Jack Russell terrier, which could have plummeted into the depths of hopeless cuteness, always appealed to me as just delightful enough without a sugar rush.
I didn’t love it as much as I loved Thumbsucker, I think because I found the sets and locations distractingly posh. It’s almost Woody Allen-like — the extraordinarily well-appointed Los Angeles hillside homes, the great art on the walls, the way that Laurent’s hair is always so perfectly unbrushed. In contrast, I found the Oregon drabness of Thumbsucker and its subtle family resemblances between the actors Tilda Swinton and Lou Pucci so exquisitely wrought, right down to their hopeful, needy unloveliness; I longed, in this film, for a bit more of that realism rather than a rarefied LA world.
But oh, what Mike Mills can do with great actors — and oh, his gift for getting them into his films! Beginners is compelling in every scene due to McGregor’s and Plummer’s acting, their handsomeness, their appreciation for their lovers. If this film answers its questions with “the eternal Yes” of love, as Mr. Emerson puts it in Room with a View (1985), it doesn’t do so cheaply, or easily. See it, and enjoy your midsummer questions about life and existence — till anon, when I think on the screen about Tree of Life.