Sadder Than What Came Before
by TRACY WAN
dir. Mike Mills
Much like describing the liquid in a glass, a decisive moment in life is either an ending or a beginning, depending on the light. It takes time to notice that the end of a great relationship is also the onset of a period of incomparable potential; it takes even longer to remember when that sadness woke up as happiness. In the subdued, painterly palette of Mike Mills’ Beginners, the lines become impossible to draw — it takes many, many sketches.
Hal (the ever heartwarming Christopher Plummer) drew his line at age 75, months after the death of his wife, by coming out to his son Oliver (the slightly canine Ewan McGregor). He does so emphatically, matter-of-factly, establishing himself as the brand of gay man who wants “to do something about it.”
When the film opens, Hal has already passed — lung cancer. He leaves behind innumerable bottles of medication, a beautiful house, an affectionate but dependent dog (Arthur) and Oliver, the confused and grieving son, the one in charge of sorting the aftermath.
The most evident thing about Oliver is that he is sad, the kind of sadness that defines, if not creates, a person. So much, in fact, that it can be seen from behind a costume of Freud. When he meets Anna (Melanie Laurent), who plays along as the patient to his clinician, she dissects him instead. Through forces inexplicable in language but familiar to the dimension of relationships, they leave the party together, and stay together.
The film is largely episodic, with the arc of Oliver’s relationship with Anna being braced by flashbacks of his past, strongly tied to his relationship with his parents. We see a series of impassive kisses between them contrasted by the tender moments between Oliver and his new girlfriend, elusive and sad in her own way.
We see Hal discover house music, get sick, fall in love. This inter-cutting retraces Oliver’s mannerisms to his earliest memories, and his emotional dysfunctionality to an irreversible moment: the realization that two people who love you might not love each other--that even if they do, sadness still seeps through.
As a story with an autobiographical spine — based on Mills' relationship with his own father — Beginners comes close to being hermetically sealed. It overflows with cultural markers, particularly in the sequences of historical images that Oliver narrates as artifacts of another time. This is the sun in 1955. This is the president in 2003. When a friend incites him to vandalize various empty spaces in LA, Oliver favors statements that evoke "historical consciousness" instead of the common vulgarities.
These moments, although refreshing, are simultaneously isolating; they inform us, but also turn away from us. A film so preoccupied with the past and its demerits finds it hard to undress its melancholy, which travels from frame to frame, 1955 to 2003, New York to L.A. (and back). It is in eyes of people who come together despite their personal sadness, who find it hard to provide for each other’s immeasurable lack.
As Oliver wisely notes, "our good fortune [allows] us to feel a sadness our parents never had time for." Beginners makes the time for it, amply so, perhaps excessively. There is always the desire to leave that melancholy behind and like Hal, turn the page and do something about it. Discover house music. Fall in love.
"Slow Show" - The National (mp3)
"Driver Surprise Me" - The National (mp3)
"Runaway" - The National (mp3)