(Mild Spoilers Ahead)
It has been a while since my last review (May, in fact). It’s not that I haven’t been to the movies, it’s just that I’ve been too preoccupied to cover the newer releases. X-Men: First Class came and went, for example. That seems so long ago.
Over the past two weeks I have found myself returning to the theater, watching Everything Must Go and Midnight In Paris, both of which were good, solid films (the former in particular).
But what I have really been anticipating is Mike Mills’ Beginners. I loved the trailer and I’ve always been partial to Ewan McGregor, whose career has become more low-key over the past ten years. Also, the canine subtitles charmed me.
Then again, that could charm just about anyone.
Anyway, I decided the film would be worth seeing, even though I didn’t like Mills’ previous film, Thumbsucker (2005) or the work of his wife, writer/director/performance artist Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know, the upcoming The Future, etc.). In the end I figured McGregor was in it and Roman Polanski wasn’t directing. I was sold.
It turned out that Beginners was different from its preview. It was quiet, often unexpectedly funny and touching, but much more somber than I had thought. Coincidentally, its themes tie into Everything Must Go and Midnight In Paris– all three depict a man in transition. Also, these films have open endings, prompting you to wonder what will happen to them.
This is especially true for Beginners. The main character is Oliver (McGregor), a 38-year-old graphic artist who is languishing in the wake of his father’s death. Bent over the desk in his studio he creates a series of drawings called “The History Of Sadness,” one sardonic and depressing picture after another. He has seemingly lost interest in smiling; his face is so grief-stricken it’s almost expressionless. The only person he is really talking to is his father’s dog, Arthur, a Jack Russell terrier.
Soon enough you’re asking yourself, “How is he going to get out of his funk?”
The answer: a girl, of course. Enter Anna (Mélanie Laurent), a beautiful Frenchwoman whose gaze penetrates him immediately. She seems to know him already- effortlessly, almost intuitively. The first night she sees him is at a costume party. She has laryngitis and can’t speak, scribbling notes to him on a pad. She smiles at him. Oliver is instantly besotted.
Although their love story unfolds in Oliver’s present (in this case, 2003), the film actually exists during three different periods of Oliver’s life: childhood memories centering on his mother (Mary Page Heller); the last five years he spent with his father (Christopher Plummer); and the present with Anna, Arthur and his friends. Mills’ editing choices merge these three storyline seamlessly to create a sweet, although unsettling portrait of this man’s past, present and future.
For one thing, we learn that his parents’ marriage was strained and unhappy. This isn’t surprising since early on it is revealed that Hal, Oliver’s father, was gay. In a clever sequence Oliver’s narration touches on the subjectivity of his memory: “I remember him wearing a purple sweater when he told me this, but actually he wore a robe.” The scene is shot both ways, alternating images and outfits.
After coming out, Hal’s life changes drastically. Oliver supports his choices and observes it all, watching him make new friends and take a younger lover (Goran Višnjić) before he is diagnosed with stage-four cancer. In spite of this Hal is truly happy, perhaps for the first time in his life. In contrast, Oliver is afraid but isn’t good at expressing it. That fear continues after losing his father, a fear compounded by the memories of his mother and the loveless marriage that produced him.
Needless to say, this eventually bleeds into his affair with Anna, who seems to have some serious relationship issues of her own. The whimsical girl who appeared to be Oliver’s salvation (an archetype The Onion has nicknamed the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl“) is just as damaged as he is, perhaps more. While looking out of a hotel room window she observes, “People like us, half of them think it will never work out. The other half believe in magic.”
This line is the crux of Beginners, posing the question of whether Oliver and Anna- both the product of unhappy households- really believe in that magic. To be honest, upon leaving the theater I really didn’t know. My impression is that Oliver has learned something from his father’s example, but Anna’s character was more of a question mark. Her behavior didn’t make a lot of sense to me, and although Oliver may be struggling with fear, Anna’s problem is that she isn’t emotionally honest.
Despite this it’s hard to truly dislike these characters. How strange is that? Laurent’s Anna is sexy, self-possessed and fragile, all at the same time. It’s easy to understand her appeal. Hal could have also fallen into the role of the selfish father figure, but Mills has no interest in portraying him this way. Plummer’s Hal is genuine and likable. Also, a pivotal scene where he reveals the true nature of his marriage is one of the best moments in the film.
Then there’s McGregor. Oliver could have easily come across as a moping, pretentious whiner but that simply doesn’t happen. The impression I got was of someone who is feeling lost, as well as someone who wants to do the right thing. Although the performance is understated it’s hard not to be blinded by McGregorness- namely, instant likability. How can you hate a character played by Ewan McGregor? It’s hard, even if he’s asking for it (Shallow Grave, Nora, Young Adam). It’s this quality that allowed me to take Oliver seriously and feel for him. As the story draws to a close, you not only want to see him do better, but hope for it.
The end of the film is actually a beginning of sorts, living up to its title, and an uncertain one at best. I’m still on the fence about it. For now it seems most critics of this film have embraced Beginners‘ ambiguity. Perhaps my opinion stands alone.