BY GARY M. KRAMER | Love Is Strange,” a thoughtful, wistful film from director and co-writer Ira Sachs, concerns a couple — George (Alfred Molina) and Ben (John Lithgow) — who have been together 39 years. The men marry in the opening moments, but spend most of the rest of the film apart. When the Catholic school where he works learns of the wedding, George is fired and the men lose their apartment. George moves in with his downstairs neighbors, Roberto (Manny Perez) and Ted (Cheyenne Jackson), while Ben goes to live with his nephew Elliot (Darren E. Burrows), his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei), and their son Joey (Charlie Tahan).
Watching men who love each other live apart forms the emotional core of this observational drama.
“It’s a film about intimacy and about the possibility of love to grow with time,” the soft-spoken Sachs declared over tea last month at the Marlton Hotel. “It’s called ‘Love Is Strange’ for a reason: every intimate relationship is different from the next. Every stage of our lives, we experience love in a different way. This is a film about three generations. Each has a different perspective of love based on their experiences. You have the older couple, the couple in the middle of their lives, and this young boy [Joey] finding out about love for the first time.”
The writer and director emphasizes character and mood over plot, a narrative strategy that keeps the audience engaged. A series of lovely scenes depict how George, Ben, and their friends and family members interact. The authenticity of key moments in the film will resonate with viewers — whether in the opening sequence when Ben borrows money from George and the two search for a lost pair of glasses before heading off to get married or later when the couple reminisce about their lives together at the Greenwich Village Bar Julius’.
“Love Is Strange” is a personal film for Sachs, but it is not autobiographical. Though he and his husband, painter Boris Torres, married in January 2013 — and had twins a week later — Sachs identifies more with the character of Kate than with either Ben or George.
“She’s me in the sense that she’s in the middle of her life, trying to figure out what the parameters are and what is possible and what might have to be let go,” he explained.
Sachs described his drama as “a film about family and learning to accept the limits of our own lives.”
Elaborating on that theme, he said, “That we are not here forever is comforting, not depressing. ‘Love Is Strange’ recognizes and values my parents’ generation. It’s very much a middle age film, a film about my parents — the people I see who are disappearing.”
Sachs beautifully depicts what he calls “the seasons of life” in his film, and he expresses empathy for all his characters. Ben is forced to share a room with Joey, which creates some awkward moments between them — especially when George visits — and creates a dramatic subplot about stolen books. In time, Kate becomes irritated by the burden of Ben’s presence.
“These are good people who can still manage to hurt each other,” Sachs said of his characters. “That is the texture that I am most interested in, the nuance of intimacy. All my previous films are about the nature of relationships and the likelihood of relationships destroying everyone involved. A lot of my films have been about lies and what is hidden, and for the most part, this is not that film.”
His new film, Sachs explained, explores issues of offering support to those around us.
“‘Love Is Strange’ is more about responsibility and what we choose to do with other people,” he said. “How much we are there for the people we are closest to. I really try not to judge anyone in the film, nor myself, for the complicated questions: Who do we take care of? Who do we take in? And what is our responsibility?”
Sachs’ explores these questions in depicting George and Ben’s marriage. Despite the fact that their wedding cost George his job, the filmmaker is more interested in what their marriage means in terms of their lives together on a personal level.
“You can say that gay marriage is reactionary and avant-garde,” Sachs said. “I believe it is both. I think it’s become such a symbolic point in the discussion around equality that it’s meaningful in the same way that water fountains were in the civil rights movements. People didn’t really just want to drink water, they just wanted the right to drink water.”
He added, “‘Love Is Strange’ is about two people who face conflict and thus grow stronger together. It’s a drama of separation.”
Separation has very profound consequences on intimacy, he noted.
“What they were separated from was being in bed together: physical intimacy in private space,” Sachs explained. “So when you do see them in bed together, it reveals the history more than anything else.”
For the filmmaker, that is a history of complexity and nuance.
“It’s a film about the beauty of love,” Sachs said. “I wanted the audience to get a laser sharp view of the history of this relationship and understand in a moment that it had its passages and its acts. The heart of the film is about intimacy, the structure of building a life together with another human being. Love is not simple, and intimacy is complex.”
LOVE IS STRANGE | Directed by Ira Sachs | Sony Classics | Opening Aug. 22 | Angelika Film Center, 18 W. Houston St. at Mercer St. | angelikafi