“We didn’t go to this war. We didn’t have to hide to have sex. Our good fortune allowed us to feel a sadness that our parents didn’t have time for and a happiness that I never saw with them.”
-Oliver Fields, “Beginners” (2010)
What does the modern American relationship look like? We live in a culture decades removed from the sexual revolution, and in the midst of the gay rights and modern feminist movement. The statistics of divorce and our inevitable failure get crammed into skulls like ticker tape. We arguably have more freedom to shape our relationships than ever before. So now what?
The film “Beginners” (2010) explores this dilemma. It is directed Mike Mills and stars Ewan McGregor (“Big Fish,” “Moulin Rouge”), Christopher Plummer (“The Sound of Music”) and Mélanie Laurent (“Inglorious Basterds”). We follow Ewan’s character, Oliver Fields, as he grapples with two announcements: First, that his father has terminal cancer, and second, that his father has been gay his whole life.
Oliver constantly wrestles with his past through the objects that his father has left behind. He narrates his past and present with a resigned melancholy. We get glimpses into his memories as a child with his mother, as an adult with his father, and in the present with Anna (Laurent). We feel, along with Oliver, a psychological distance from either parent. And without a model for what he believed love should look like, he maintains distance with everyone, including Anna.
He meets Anna at a party, and despite her laryngitis, they manage to fall in love. She is an actress who flits from city to city. But lately she doesn’t feel so free. In fact, she realizes that moving around has been its own prison. We find out that she is escaping some familial trauma of her own, which always catches up and preys on her.
The greatest mystery to understand is that of the relationship between Oliver’s gay father and half-Jewish mother. We are revealed the genesis of their relationship, their desperation for acceptance, and we come to terms with how minorities deal with alienation. But they too wanted ideal love and ideal happiness, and they did what they could.
Some films speak truths about our lives that we didn’t think anybody knew about. I don’t usually feel so struck by films as this film struck me. The acting is sincere and the emotions they evoke are poignant. This is a film that you will probably relate to on some level.
The aesthetic of the film is beautiful in that it is simple. Most of it takes place within the crisp white walls of what looks like a ’70s style home in California. The emphasis is on the objects Oliver sorts through (old photos, gay magazines, his father’s personal ad for a gay lover, etc.), and the memories and feelings they make him process.
What the film seems to convey is that the social and political movements of the ‘50s and ‘60s did not uncover truth about sex and relationships, but rather allowed us to redefine it. Anna has the freedom to move about from country to country without the pressure to settle down, but is she any happier? Oliver avoids relationships in fear that he will replicate what his father and mother had, but will he be any more fulfilled? Essentially, we can do whatever we want now, but do we even know what we want?
I think that the answer, in this film, is in how we choose to let go of what got us here.