Even their friends thought Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy made an odd couple when they first met. The 30-year difference between an upper-crust British writer and a young Californian glamour-hound was just one of the difficulties facing the pair in the 1950s, yet the strength of their love through the ups and downs of a relationship that blossomed for three decades was what kept them together up to Isherwood’s death in 1986, and what makes Chris & Don: A Love Story one of the most positive, affecting portrayals of queer romance in recent memory.
In Tina Mascara and Guido Santi’s documentary, Bachardy, now a spirited septuagenarian esteemed for his portraits, sets the warm, subversive tone of their relationship by recounting his introduction as a movie-mad 18-year-old to 49-year-old Isherwood, recalling him as a “villain” who taught him “all kinds of wicked things,” before adding, with a mischievous laugh, that “it was exactly what the boy wanted.” The union was unlikely, yet the differences between old-world and new-world harmonize beguilingly, and soon the two were living together, with the young American thrust both into the novelist’s personal life and his illustrious artistic circle.
Elegantly stocked with home-movie glimpses of ‘50s gay culture and tantalizing anecdotes (including the couple’s hashish-fueled interlude with Paul Bowles in Tangiers, and Isherwood’s dislike of Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, which was based on the Weimar Berlin he visited in the early 1930s), Chris & Don is at its most profound when depicting how artistic expression can strengthen and perpetuate human connection. The titular couple is not free of tensions: Isherwood, who we learn “couldn’t relax sexually with a member of his own class or nation,” inevitably imparted his mannerisms onto his young lover, while Bachardy always felt the need to seek out his own identity.
A whole other documentary would be necessary to do full justice to either Isherwood’s writings or Bachardy’s portraits, yet the beauty of the film lies in how it reveals the ways their art reflects their feelings for each other, challenging their cultural disparities as well as the passage of time. When the novelist rhapsodizes about his lover in the pages of The Christopher Isherwood Diaries or the portrait artist beatifies his dying companion in a series of wrenching, heartfelt sketches, their talents suggest transcendent levels at which art becomes declarations of direct emotion. In moments like these, Chris & Don achieves the kind of rare grace that earns its subtitle as a true love story.