At TIFF: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer Bond in Bittersweet Beginners
It's often said -- and most often by people in relationships themselves -- that no one can ever really know what happens between two people in love, or even those marking time in a marriage. And yet, in the case of a child or some otherwise invested third party, it is possible to be molded against a relationship so tightly that, once peeled away, one is left with a pretty good impression of its contours. In Beginners, Mike Mills's loose, feeling, evidently highly personal portrait of grief's ritual excavation of memory, Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is reevaluating the impression he formed of his parents' marriage, and the shape he's in as a result.
Mills evokes both the spectrum and the fluidity of memory with a constant movement in time between Oliver two months after his father's death and the time that directly preceded it. In those years -- the four years following his mother's death -- his father (played with warmth and woolly dignity by Christopher Plummer) announced that he was, is and always has been gay, and in his remaining years he intends to do something about it. Cowed by his parents' strange and unsatisfying marriage (which Mills also flashes back to, mainly to evoke the relationship between the very young Oliver and his disappointed, eccentric mother, beautifully played by Mary Page Keller), Oliver at 38 is a skittish serial monogamist only too ready to rule a woman out. Watching the vigor with which his father sets out to finally address his loneliness and assert his identity only seems to depress him further.
Here, as in The Ghost Writer, it's a little tough to watch McGregor, with his wide, reflecting pool eyes and naturally porous, responsive presence to play a closed up, chronic deflector. It's when he meets a French actress named Anna (Melanie Laurent) at a Halloween party and begins to talk to (and fall in love with) someone other than his Jack Russell Terrier that the characterization -- perhaps by dint of placing the unnaturally unhappy version of Oliver in a larger balance -- takes root.
"Tell her the darkness is about to drown us unless something drastic happens right now," says the dog, Oliver's constant companion, when it looks like he's about to score. Yes, the dog talks occasionally, in subtitles, and there are other self-reflexive and otherwise cutesy touches throughout, but they don't grate as much as they could, largely as a result of Mills's careful narrative latticework. Nothing is cute for cuteness' sake, though Mills does slightly over-do the narrated photo collages, each one describing a pattern of what normalcy, love, happiness and what the president looked like during a given year in the 20th century. It's also a relief that Laurent tamps down the 'M' in her Manic Pixie Dream Girl; she's French, after all, which means she can spout faux philosophical sophistry while maintaining the edge in her endlessly blue eyes.
All threads and even all self-conscious quirks lead to the central thematic interplay of impressions: Oliver's father dedicated 44 years of his life to making the right impression, hoping that if he looked -- if not lived -- the part he might be happy. A graphic artist by trade, Oliver collects his past women into a personal gallery, as if drawing them might articulate their fatal flaw. Both Oliver and Anna have developed strategies to keep people from pushing past the carefully organized impression they make, and Mills charts the mysterious course of attraction and repulsion between two scared, willing people with understated empathy. They both know well what love looks like -- Anna helps create the images on screen, and Oliver has absorbed them as deeply as anyone else, and to deleterious effect -- but how does it feel? The story is small but emotionally compact, and during a festival that can tend toward both empty flash and doleful sprawl, I was grateful for that.