by SHAHIRAH MAJUMDAR
dir. Alexander Poe
I can’t help but read the new comedy Ex-Girlfriends, Alex Poe’s first feature film — which he also wrote, produced and stars in — as less about girlfriends than about the business of being a storyteller. On its surface, the film is about love and its complications, and untangles a succession of moments in the lives of three people who find themselves interconnected in strange and unlooked for ways. At its heart, however, it’s more about our ache for something profound in our lives, and our tendency to inscribe beauty and significance into ordinary, sometimes unlovely things.
The plot is pretty simple, except where it becomes convoluted. A boy named Graham meets a girl named Laura. Boy chases girl. Pandemonium ensues. Journey of romantic conquest becomes journey of self-revelation. But the girl is an ex from Graham’s past who reappears the same day he’s dumped by his most recent girlfriend and the love story is complicated by a quadrangle involving Graham, his friend Kate (Jennifer Carpenter of Dexter), Laura (Kristin Connolly) and a guy both Kate & Laura are dating, with all the vectors pointing in all the wrong directions. And as for this notion of self-revelation, isn’t that just another word for fleeting moment of clarity that evaporates with your morning cup of coffee?
You could call it a romantic comedy — Ex-Girlfriends is, after all, funny and sweet and captures the lives of 20-somethings in New York — but it’s really a hybrid sort of thing. Through its use and misuse of the common tropes & beats of romantic comedy — including first-person voiceover, quirky sidekicks played for dubious hilarity, and a madcap car chase to win the object of attraction which hinges on the highly banal detail that she can’t check her email because she doesn’t have a smartphone — it interrogates the romantic comedy as a genre capable of representing the messy reality of love in our lives.
Similarly, one of meta-gags employed by the film are the MFA workshops in which Graham, a fiction student at Columbia’s School of the Arts, presents and endures comments on the very story that the film is telling. His fellow students are a Greek chorus of derision. They don’t want things as they are; they want a prettier version, a more enlightening version, a version that empowers and reassures us with its articulation of things important and empyrean in life. Things as they really happen, oh how very boring…
Throughout, the film plays with conventional emotional & narrative expectations. There’s no sex, for example, and ideas of love and happiness are only seen in their absence. It’s not clear why exactly Graham wants Laura back in his life — does he love her, or this merely a habitual apophenia, willfully creating significance out of a random constellation of details, such as the fact that she’s read War and Peace? — and all the ex-girlfriends (except Kate) seem to blur together: a revolving door of blondes with soft faces and soft eyes and softer voices. All blondes being equal here, are we being told here that no one of these girls is qualitatively better than the other?
And yet it’s a tender film. The characters all have the grace of human awkwardness — because they are so flawed and so yearning, they move us — and there's a kind of weariness that colors the mood: in the way the city is depicted (water or bridges are always in the background; you can’t help but be aware of how New York is a city surrounded by water, and how vulnerable we are in that isolation, especially in this post-Sandy age), in the plot-structure and use of voiceover, in the music, and in the way that moments of silence or non-verbal response are sometimes stretched out between characters and left to linger in the air… But that weariness is also ironic, the weariness of someone weaned on Proust who tastes a madeleine for the first time and discovers that it’s, eh, not what you thought it would be. It is weariness as something palpable you note and file away; the failure of significance is in itself what becomes significant.
Still, Ex-Girlfriends offers Jennifer Carpenter’s Kate as a counterpoint. It’s fitting that her character is the one non-New Yorker in the film and that she sets a chain of events in motion with her arrival in the city. She’s ferocious, her voice pugnacious, her body wild with uncontrolled energy and emotion; she seems to exist in a different world than the other characters. In Ex-Girlfriends' most poignant scene, she and Graham lie next to each other, just two friends, lonely & exhausted, and she asks, “Will I ever find real love?” “Yes,” he says. “When?” “Later.” And that’s it.
If this exchange feels incomplete, the slippage into the fragmentary is emblematic of what the film has to tell us about stories & how we locate ourselves in them. It is impossible to represent totality, in film or in fiction, or even in 3 a.m. moments of perfect drunken clarity. Our perceptions about ourselves and the world are always incomplete. We mine the past, we make lists representing who we were and where we’re going, and rifle through the archives of memory knowing that the moment, the fragment, the very things that fail and remain unfinished have a vitality that is indelible.
In his attention to such moments, Graham is not a cynic; he’s a romantic. He doesn’t stop hoping, or longing, or working to create meaning, or believing in the astonishingness of what is (or what fails to be), or even in the promise that true love is still out there. Someday, something different will surface. The gerbil wheel will break. The Mobius strip will take you somewhere else. You’ll wake up to a different reality. And you wait for that moment that will make the other moments make sense: “the moment when your eyes will lock and everything will come together…”
For the characters of Ex-Girlfriends, as for many of us, that moment hasn’t yet come. Maybe it never will. And maybe failure and repetition are just ways of saying that transcendence is no more important than this hands-on, knee-deep, impassioned mucking through the damned untidiness of life itself. Memory bleeds. Coincidence is the order of the day. Happiness, like everything, is arbitrary.
Shahirah Majumdar is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about Vertigo.
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