Beginners

September 3, 2011
Beginners

It’s widely assumed that visual artists who become directors will necessarily make arty, unwatchable films. Miranda July showed this need not be so with her sparkling feature of 2005, You, Me and Everyone We Know. Now her husband, Mike Mills, has added another volume to the defence of the artist, with Beginners, a film about sadness that is never truly sad, maudlin or sentimental.

This is a movie that had every chance of being an exercise in self-indulgence. It is broadly autobiographical, with the lead character, Oliver, played by Ewen McGregor, being a stand-in for Mills himself. It has a loveable, unconventional father, played by Christopher Plummer, who refuses to be cowed by inoperable cancer. It has an exotic love interest in Anna, a French actress played by a French actress, Mélanie Laurent, whom viewers might remember from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) – although she can’t be blamed for that tasteless piece of tat.

Most dangerous of all, it has a Jack Russell called Arthur – in real life, Cosmo, a Hollywood veteran, now in his third feature. The spectre of cuteness lurks in the wings, but somehow never makes it on to the stage. Instead, we have one of those unclassifiable films that is vaguely a comedy, with initimations of mortality, love and loss. The action is episodic, and one can never be sure what will happen next. Ewen McGregor spends almost the entire film looking like he is about to burst into tears.

But it works. Beginners is a crisp, stylish, almost plotless affair that should charm anyone not hanging out for a car chase or an alien invasion.

The story centres around Oliver, who is packing up the house of his late father, Hal, a retired museum director. After the death of Oliver’s mother, Hal came out as gay at the age of 75. For 44 years of marriage he had gone straight, but decided in his old age to partake of every aspect of the gay lifestyle. He joined Gay Pride and got himself a new group of friends, including a rumbustious young boyfriend, Andy – played by Goran Visnjic as a kind of human St. Bernard.

Hal’s hedonistic outlook is in contrast to his son, a graphic artist, who measures his life in failed relationships. The flashbacks suggest that it has a lot to do with the strained relations between his parents. Only now does Oliver realise that what he took to be a lack of love was really a difference in sexual orientation. When they married, Hal had stopped being gay, and his wife, Georgia (Mary Page Keller), had stopped being Jewish. It was their way of adapting to the repressive atmosphere of the 1950s, a role they maintained until death.

When Oliver is dragged to a fancy dress party, dressed as Sigmund Freud, he encounters Anna, who senses his sadness but insists on communicating only by notes. As the relationship develops, we see her as Oliver’s counterpart in misery: spending her life in hotel rooms, forming and breaking relationships.

How do these two emotionally retarded people become one? Arthur the dog has a role to play, and we regularly receive his thoughts via a line of text across the bottom of the screen. So does the late Hal, who is alive for most of the movie, as the story continually flips between two time frames. As the story of Oliver and Anna is set in 2003, the entire film is a memoir.

Mills’s leading idea is that, when it comes to human relationships, we are all beginners. The gusto with which Hal embraces his new gay identity actually brings him much closer to Oliver, who feels he is communicating his father for the first time. In his late 70s, riddled with cancer, Hal is an inspiration to a son who struggles with his own introverted tendencies.

Oliver is at his best when sitting with a pen in his hand. He gets excited about a commission to design a CD cover for a band called the Sads, turning it into an elaborate concept that leaves his clients dumbfounded. He tags enigmatic ‘historical’ sentences onto walls: “Britney Spears most googled 2003”.

Arthur, equipped with the mournful, pleading expression that dogs have perfected, is a walking love detector. He can’t bear to be left alone, and responds instinctively to those who show him the right kind of affection.

Mills made this film while grieving for his father, but it is a celebration rather than an act of mourning. Instead of simply overcoming sadness in a time-honoured burst of Hollywood catharsis, Oliver inhabits this state. His response is so much truer to life that it makes most other movies seem laboured and artificial. One does not overcome one’s nature in blinding flash, while the first euphoria of love soon starts to fracture.

Beginners acknowledges complexity as an unavoidable part of all relationships. It shows that the happiest moments may be punctuated by tears, and that humour arises in the midst of despair. Mills suggests that only by exposing ourselves to the risk of sadness do we catch a glimpse of the dim, distant foothills of happiness.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, September 3, 2011

USA Rated M, 104 minutes.

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