With just two features director Ira Sachs has created a distinctive, deliriously beautiful aesthetic: a romantic and haunting queer cinema that favors off-kilter framing, noticeable film grain, and deceptively naturalistic sound design. His characters are brilliantly realized conceptual amalgams—clearly they have precursors in movies and literature (as The Delta's protagonists were explicitly sexualized extensions of Twain's Huck Finn and Jim), yet they also possess a flesh and blood vividness that, coupled with Sachs's unique visual and aural rhythms, suggests they are playing out their dramas before an unseen, always curious kino-eye. "I am a camera," wrote author Christopher Isherwood in The Berlin Stories. Clearly he was aware of that statement's insightful play and pun on the first person, and it is a simultaneous declaration of artistic intent that Sachs, his cinema contemporary, likewise aspires to and achieves.
In Forty Shades of Blue, Isherwood's Berlin becomes Sachs's Memphis, a bustling locale as much a flesh-and-blood character as any a god (or a moviemaker) could contrive. Indeed, the director continuously steps away from his main narrative line to linger on the peripheral, multicolored faces that populate the city, capturing snippets of their conversation and thus suggesting, or perhaps insisting, that there will always be more stories to tell. A triumph of insightful humanism, these interludes serve yet another purpose: in their heady swirl of feeling and vitality they become the literal living bars on the central character's gilded cage, tantalizing her with hopeful possibilities that she is consistently unable to attain.
Sachs sets up the imprisonment parallel in the film's glorious title sequence, observing Laura (Dina Korzun)—a Russian expat trophy wife to old-time music producer Alan (Rip Torn)—as she weaves her way in and around various perfume displays in a Memphis mall. There's something deliberately rough about Sachs's visuals here. He never attempts to keep Laura in consistent focus and at times loses sight of her among the scent-containing bric-a-brac, which glitter like the falling diamonds in the opening of Sirk's Imitation of Life. This is the first clue to Forty Shades' cinema inspiration: it's a postmodern update of an Old Hollywood woman's melodrama that makes use of naturalist locales in place of hermetic, ostentatious soundstages. Sachs utilizes architecture much as Sirk (and his own predecessor, John M. Stahl) did, isolating characters within structural circles and squares to suggest their emotional distance and entrapment, while simultaneously portraying the often self-imposed gender, class, and moral divisiveness that hinders their progression and keeps them stuck in a circuitous rut.
At first, Sachs seems to be following a typical woman's melodrama template. Korzun cuts a striking figure and there's more than a shade of Marlene Dietrich in her "model's" performance (which favors myriad costume changes and blank, metronomic glances into off-screen space), leading one to suspect that the director is rather glibly enamored of his leading lady in ways that sunk the ultimately soulless Todd Haynes/Julianne Moore pastiche Far from Heaven. Yet Sachs is much shrewder than the film's initial scenes suggest. The director effectively defuses any sense of Svengali syndrome by acknowledging its dangers through the multifaceted character of Alan who, with his devilish goatee and blustery demeanor, might be the bastard offspring of cinema's most famous Vons (Sternberg and Stroheim), a person likely to bite your head off and call it Love. Likewise, Korzun is in no way content to ride a Dietrich imitation to undeserving accolades: Laura is a woman out of time and out of place, yet her primped-up, painted shell of an exterior masks deep-felt murmurs of a perpetually pained heart—she's a goddess, essentially, but only on the surface.
There's a beautiful early sequence that illustrates the character's complexity: At a banquet honoring her husband's efforts in the Memphis music industry, Laura is abandoned by Alan when he uses a conversation with colleagues as an excuse to sneak off for an impromptu liaison. Sachs shoots their parting of ways in a single shot, Alan standing to the extreme right of the image and Laura positioned to the extreme left. The sound design overwhelms with its conversational layers as it does in the work of Altman, and Alan is inevitably the first person one notices as he's the character performing the scene's literal actions. Yet Sachs holds the shot long enough that our eyes slowly drift toward Laura who seems to emerge from ether, her embarrassment and loneliness growing with each passing moment.
Certainly Dietrich wouldn't allow for such a self-aggrandizing display of masculinity (she'd probably respond with a yawn and a dismissive wink before galloping off on her own perverse misadventures.) Yet Laura internalizes the pain Alan inflicts and the more hits she absorbs the more her individualist soul bubbles to the surface, threatening to spill out in all its profound disarray. It's a strange thematic aim for a Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, using the well-worn tenets of a particular kind of film melodrama to deconstruct the Marlene Dietrich mystique, and it reaches its apotheosis mid-movie when Laura sings the title song via an internalized voice-over (the chanteuse of the present favoring sublime solitude over the adulating throngs of the past. Clearly the movie musical moves ever inward.)
That this is all done with a straight face lends Forty Shades of Blue a profound emotional credence. Unlike Far from Heaven, Sachs's film doesn't live or die on overly intellectualized concepts and Korzun's performance brings it all together with its triumphantly odd mesh of subdued realism and deceptive flamboyance. In Die, Mommie, Die!, the drag comedian Charles Busch used camp gesture and intonation as insight into the Bette Davis/Joan Crawford canon; Korzun complements Busch's efforts in Forty Shades of Blue with her Dixieland Dietrich, yet she's more fortunate because a great movie surrounds her.
Time and again Sachs confounds audience expectations, be it in his erotic, matter-of-fact portrayal of Laura's impulsive affair with Alan's estranged son Michael (Darren Burrows) or in his multilayered evocation of Laura's self-actualization (rendered in the film's climactic scene via a shaky tracking shot and nouvelle vague freeze-frame as Laura strides off into the night while Torn's Southern Svengali futilely honks his car horn after her.) Indeed, Sachs so consistently makes the right choices that his efforts are certain to be taken for granted. No less a personality than Roger Ebert backhandedly dismissed Sachs's film, which he missed in its initial Sundance screening. In a post-awards catch-up review Ebert offered faint praise, then shockingly described this involved and intricate work as "conventional," going on to express his preference for the, by all accounts, precious quirk of Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know.
It's become standard practice at Sundance of late to award such odd-duck underachievers as last year's Primer or just plain ol' underachievers like 1995's The Brothers McMullen, movies with insufferable pretensions to greatness or, worse, no pretensions to anything at all. This year's choice of Forty Shades of Blue as the festival's best film hearkens back to a time when independent work of a very individualist spirit could come out of nowhere and be rightly rewarded. There hasn't been a Grand Jury Prize winner this terrific since Tom Noonan's What Happened Was… from 1994, though I fear Forty Shades of Blue might follow in that superb film's footsteps and be released to an unaccepting or unaware public. True that great movies are oftentimes better left to the flow of history (where they can more easily settle into their rightful place in the canon) than to the perils of present-day release patterns (where they are almost always cast adrift and lost among the many flavors of the moment), but I maintain a, perhaps foolish, idealist's hope that Sachs's film—the real deal, if ever there was one—will be one of the singular exceptions to the supposed marketplace rule.