Ira Sachs’ sophomore feature is charged with emotion
When we first see Laura (Dina Korzun) in Ira Sachs’ knockout naturalistic melodrama Forty Shades of Blue, she is browsing in the make-up section of a Memphis department store. Make-up is very important to Laura, the seemingly icy Russian trophy girlfriend of Alan James (Rip Torn), a famous music producer (throughout most of the movie, we see her applying lip gloss and other products as if this war paint will protect her). As his heroine wanders, Sachs creates a whole world around Laura, combining a rough cinéma vérité atmosphere with a lush (but unshowy) stylization, all wrapped up in Julian Whatley’s floating cinematography.
We watch Laura try to sate her ennui with endless white wine and religious attention to clothes and bangles; the soulful Memphis music all around her stands in for her frozen feelings. Torn’s Alan weeps at a song during a party in his honor, but Laura is glacial, her face a mask. “What are you thinking about?” asks a man at a bar, as Laura sips her eternal white wine, trying to forget that Alan has stranded her for sex with a groupie. “Nothing,” she replies. “Do I look like I’m thinking about something?”
Well, yes and no. When I first saw Forty Shades, I assumed that Korzun was a fashion model who was gamely braving an acting role. As the film went on and her character was touched by emotion, I was quite impressed by the way this impassive model opened herself up to feeling like a skilled actress. I found out afterwards that Korzun is a trained theater actress and that she had boldly decided to stylize the first part of her performance: all model image, nothing inside. As the film goes on, we discover Laura has plenty of feelings, but they have been buried, anesthetized. We learn things about Laura gradually, and never as much as we’d like, but we do get a sense that she has known deprivation in Russia.
The key to her character is revealed during a love scene in a car with Alan’s son, Michael (Darren E. Burrows), a blocked English teacher whose every gesture speaks for his self-contempt. Laura tries to wipe away her growing need for Michael as she reflects on America: “Everyone is so spoiled,” she says. In her mind, she should be continually grateful for the comfortable lifestyle Alan provides her; to be anything less is to be “spoiled.” Material goods are supposed to sustain her, and there is always an air of genuflection when Laura works with her make-up and puts on her jewelry. But complacency is the result of this lifestyle, a complacency typified by Michael’s wife, April (Emily McKenna), who calls him her “baby” and is perfectly happy to go along with their empty marriage. When we see his wife in action, we can see why Michael is drawn to Laura’s helplessly blunt honesty.
Sachs doesn’t make “scenes.” He sets up his characters and follows them carefully, the way Antonioni does; the editing is smooth and almost invisible. There’s nothing self-conscious or derivative about Sachs’ style. Forty Shades is not a movie about other movies, like so many of the most ambitious films of the past ten years. Sachs has something to say and as an artist he is using film to say it; he remains dedicated to a humanist investigation of overlooked people. In Sachs’ first film, The Delta (1996), he abandoned his pretty white lead, Lincoln (Shayne Gray,) and focused instead on a person that filmmakers (and most people) would simply avoid, Minh (Thang Chan), a self-loathing, part-Vietnamese immigrant.
Laura and Minh are outcasts because of their foreignness, but Minh is less able to cope with life (his English is much worse than Laura’s is). Lincoln has somewhat low self-esteem, which comes across in his pitch-perfect failed sexual encounter with an older male masochist. But low self-esteem is practically decadent, certainly manageable and probably fixable next to Minh’s hellish disillusionment. Lincoln is “spoiled,” in Laura’s sense of the word. In The Delta, Sachs is finally drawn to Minh’s fringe anger, which leads to an unexpected (and perhaps unnecessary) murder. In Forty Shades, Sachs goes in the opposite direction, watching as Laura gets “spoiled,” which means exaltation in romantic love, the highest of human pursuits.
There are very few two-shots in Forty Shades. When people talk, Sachs cuts between them, emphasizing their separateness. He jams each person on one side of the frame, often placing their head in a low corner of the picture. The alienation created by this framing is so intensely observed that it’s quite a relief when Laura has an epiphany with Michael during a carefully built-up-to, ecstatic sex scene. When they have finished, Laura turns her face towards the camera: it has been completely transformed. The self-contained model is gone and a fully awakened, emotionally alive woman has been born. This searing image of her face is as memorable as Jean Renoir’s heart-stopping close-up of Henriette (Sylvia Bataille) in Une partie de campagnie (1936), or Orson Welles’ lyrical observation of a transformed Jeanne Moreau in The Immortal Story (1968). These are storied precedents, but Sachs earns the comparison.
Torn’s Alan is a fully rounded character, filled with the dangerous undercurrents of the actor’s best work, but garnished with unexpected grace notes. He’s volatile, given to whooping it up, and somewhat oblivious of the people around him, but he cares about music and he’d like to help the people in his life. Alan might not know Laura, but he knows she’s a gifted lyricist, as is proved by the film’s title song, which is sung on the soundtrack in the middle of the movie, as she writes it. When Michael gets up at a party towards the end and says unkind things about his father, it reflects badly on the son’s immaturity. Sachs gives Alan the sort of unforgettable shot he gave Laura during her emotional awakening: Alan has proposed to her, Laura has run off. When Alan realizes that he has been cuckolded by his son, Sachs films his head very low in the frame; above him are two brightly colored lights. This punch-in-the-face shot expresses the character’s stranded state of mind perfectly. Alan doesn’t make a scene, then or later (though he does push open a screen door with agonized yet tender force when Laura and Michael go off to talk for the last time).
Laura wears a necklace with a golden “L” attached. It’s for her name, to start with, but quite obviously for “love” as the film goes on. Grateful as she is for luxuries, she needs more than a necklace to feed her starved soul. In the last scene, as Alan rattles on next to her in his car, she starts to weep. Not just any weeping: these are uncontrollable tears. Her mask cracks right open on screen, and the tears herald a kind of liberation. Laura gets out of the car and walks away. As she does, the camera moves further and further back, shaking with her as her arms flap around loosely and we hear a train coming in. Like so many shots in Forty Shades of Blue, it expresses the state of mind of the character just as a stream-of-consciousness style would express a state of mind in a novel. When I first saw the film, I was certain that Laura would get back in the car after the final freeze frame. When I saw it again, I wasn’t so certain (like the best movies, it shifts every time you watch it). Forty Shades of Blue is wonderfully unconventional, truthful and touching. It heralds Ira Sachs as one of a small group of American filmmakers to watch hopefully in the years to come.