The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.

Written by Dario Llinares.

Photo from the article When assessing the essential difference between the life experience of his father and his own, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), the central character in Mike Mills’ Beginners, muses that “our good fortune allows us a sadness that our parents never had time for”. This line encapsulates the central theme of a film which knowingly acknowledges a (largely Western) post-1960s self-reflexive mindset; an addiction to pernicious auto-observation - some might call it naval gazing - of the minutiae of self-centred lives.

Taking this starting point as a given, Beginners thus becomes an examination of the fear of living in a world in which one’s knowledge of others, even closest family, is highly uncertain. The film opens with the central protagonist, Oliver, explaining the death of his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), to Hal’s melancholic, yet lovable dog Arthur. This is immediately prefaced by a flashback to Hal stating directly to the camera, “I’m gay”. The direct address is instructive here: ‘what would you do?’ asks the film of its audience. Oliver explains in voice-over that the thing he remembers most about this moment is that Hal was wearing a purple sweater; he doesn’t know if this is true, but that is how he remembers it. In both the discovery of his father’s sexuality, and the uncertainty about the purple sweater, the director is questioning the realities that Oliver clings to in order to define the world and his own place in it. This is merely the initial rumination of a film which continually deploys cinematic mechanisms to question the reference points we use to construct a sense of self.

Retracing the period between Hal’s coming out and his death, Beginners goes on to explore the filial tensions created by this shift in understanding between son and father. These scenes are intercut with flashbacks to Oliver’s childhood spent in company of his mother Georgia (Mary Page Keller). The use of what are ostensibly visual reminiscences is symptomatic of Oliver’s re-evaluation of his parents’ marriage; he is able to look upon his Father’s absences and his Mother’s eccentricities with a new level of insight. The disclosure that Hal was gay throughout his marriage undermines Oliver’s understanding of his parents’ identities, and his own. Furthermore, these periods in Oliver’s past are also intercut with his present life, in which he meets the mysterious Anna (Mélanie Laurent), whose illusive and capricious character - stereotypically embodied in the fact that she is both French and an actress - feeds into Oliver’s inability, or reluctance, to connect to anything real. It is a love affair seemingly built on the security of its inevitable demise.

The film eschews linear plotting, transitioning between time periods in a manner that both allows the characters a freedom of expression that is not tied to specific cause-and-effect outcomes, and suggests via form that the linear progression of human life is somewhat factious. If mainstream cinema is often preoccupied with a protagonist’s journey towards some kind of fulfilment, Beginners uses its sequential complexities to suggest that a significant moment or revelation in the present can alter a past that is taken for granted. The disruption of narrative flow is often a hallmark of the indie flick - perhaps conceived as an implicit rejection of Hollywood mainstream form - and in this respect Beginners is reminiscent of recent films like (500) Days of Summer (2009). But there is a subtlety here that surpasses that film’s structural formalism. Rather than fitting together like a jigsaw, Beginners almost wants the viewer to forget which bit goes where, and absorb individual moments within a temporal collage. The film’s form thus requires a concentrated focus, with the payoff being a depth of characterisation that is never overwrought.

In a narrative in whose focus is the intensity of the human portrayals, the weighty names of Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer could easily have unbalanced the film. ‘Stars’, when taking roles in indie, character-driven films, often betray the sense that they are ‘acting’, in a self-conscious sense, or never quite shake off the star persona. Yet there is a minimalist approach to the performances here. McGregor pitches his 21st Century man/child perfectly, presenting an embodiment of a generation that has been given the world but can only stand on its periphery, looking on, observing, scared to truly commit. His job (a non-descript “graphic artist”), is one of those abstract occupations that belies any sense of tangible investment or outcome. He designs an elaborate and overtly intellectualised album cover, which satirically traces the “history of sadness”. The band in question, who just want simple portraits, are unimpressed by Oliver's elaborate visual philosophising, perhaps a restrained comment on the fate of creativity in an abyss of commercial superficiality. McGregor’s light-touch performance creates real empathy for a genuinely lost soul, a man whose tender alienation derives from what he feels to be the tenacious banality of life.

Christopher Plummer is sublime as Hal, simultaneously exuding the gravitas of a seasoned screen presence while utterly believable as a character embracing a new life just at the point when he begins to know his time is running out. Plummer and McGregor explore the father/son tensions with a tenderness that seldom spills over into sentimentality or cliché. The two actors use individual situations like a performance canvas, gently brushing on the intricacies of years of misunderstanding with a powerful delicacy. The scene when Oliver looks on as a young male nurse tends to a bedridden Hal is truly affecting. Plummer’s emersion into the gay scene is handled with a humour and a political awareness that also shows the film is grounded in a humane and progressive intelligence. Some of the issues around sexuality and identity are presented a little one-dimensionally, but the film is not seeking preach, merely to present. And then there’s Arthur. Hal’s adorable Jack Russell provides somewhat of an antidote the relentless introspection. But the ‘character’ of Arthur is not merely a superfluous comedy cipher, and his interaction with Oliver further symbolises the vagaries of communication and the inevitability of solitude. His subtitled comments are another example of the film’s wit and irony, which undoubtedly owes a debt to Woody Allen.

Oliver’s burgeoning romance with Anna is less convincing, although I don’t think this is the particularly the fault of either actor. The development of their relationship is built around some of the more forced markers of ‘quirk’, which the film is sometimes too obviously trying to foreground. They meet at a fancy dress party with Oliver dressed as Freud and Anna presumably as a Chaplin-esqe silent cinema star. She maintains a silence (due to laryngitis) through their initial encounter, writing everything down to communicate. Again, such a specific situation symbolically iterates the film’s central preoccupations: the uncertainty of truly knowing someone’s identity and the inherent inadequacy of communication in solving this problem. Their story is expressed through a series of offbeat set pieces that, at times, can seem rather forced. Nocturnal graffiti excursions, leapfrogging in the park and impromptu role-playing is intended to infer that the chemistry between individuals is abstract and ineffable. But the staginess of some of these moments sits rather incongruously with the downbeat tone of the film generally, making one’s engagement uneven. One minute you are engrossed in the drama, but then get distracted by the rather obtuse mechanics of these ‘falling in love’ scenarios.

The formal style mirrors the film’s themes. Shot mostly on hand-held camera, Beginners evokes an observational aesthetic and, in the main, foregoes flashy or obvious directorial signatures. Mirroring Oliver’s character, the camera watches quietly, relaying non-judgmentally the intricacies and tautness of the human emotions on display. Refraining from telegraphing its intentions to the audience, the deliberate unimposing camerawork is overlaid with a soft jazz piano soundtrack infusing the scenes with a melancholy and nostalgia that manage to stay just the right side of morose. However, the low-key realism is occasionally broken up with more acutely directorial interventions that assert the film’s more philosophical preoccupations. Temporal transitions are framed by short montage sequences, using iconic photographic images and described my Oliver in voice-over, thus giving historical context to the characters and their circumstances. This simultaneously suggests that our identities and lives are shaped by social conventions, and also how our own individual travails, which seem so all consuming, are like grains of sand in the desert of the universe. Oliver, the quintessential affluent postmodernite, seems to have too much time to think about his own insignificance.

Beginners thus takes on some fundamental, difficult questions about the human condition through constructing situations and characterisations that are familiar, but presented through a cinematic perspective that is lightly askance. It is a film in which every motif, gesture and visual sign has an intended meaning, but which, paradoxically, reveals the difficultly of ascribing a definitive meaning to anything. The end strikes a hopeful note by implying that Oliver and Anna have accepted their shared fear of commitment in a world without guarantees. This climatic ‘beginning’ serves as a fitting conclusion to a narrative which has captured, largely successfully, the fragilities of a generation of individuals who have been given the license to express their sense of self in limitless ways, but are wracked with equally limitless anxieties about what their choices mean.

This Alternate Take was published on August 25, 2011.

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