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In Jorge Furtado’s 1989 film Isle of Flowers, the narrator exposes, mimicking the authoritative tone of didactic documentaries, the inter-connectedness between all humans on the planet and the objects that guarantee their survival. Like a refreshingly zoomed-out Google map of commodity kinship, Furtado’s film establishes these chains of attainment and loss (someone’s rubbish is someone else’s dessert) through a mise-en-abyme-like series of visual associations. Ewan McGregor’s voice in Beginners strings together this poignant melancholia of a film in much more intimate ways, but with the same trans-narcissistic spirit: I am nothing without you.

McGregor plays Oliver, a dog-loving graphic artist too creative for the marketplace, a lover eager to love but too terrified to lose and a son mourning the death of his cancer-struck father (a flawless Christopher Plummer). It’s Oliver’s apprenticeship of grief that drives the film into an immaculate weaving of flashbacks, present-day experiences, and atemporal ruminations about the position the self occupies in relationship to other humans, and to human history. Here, personal pain is never an excuse for self-hagiography or ego trips travestied in a quest for “the universal.” The human experience is always atomized by what exceeds any particular human: Oliver’s father’s belated public queerness (he comes out at age 75) becomes entangled with images of the gay-rights movement, a figment of light triggers some pondering about what the sun and the stars look like in 2003, and a beautiful face takes us back to what pretty looked like in 1938.

One of the most distinct pleasures of Beginners is the way it puts together fragments of someone’s life—presumably the filmmaker’s, though little does it matter—with humility, and without vying for some complete whole. The film understands its subject(s) as contradicting and broken, and its lovers not as complements for each other, but rough-surfaced supplements. At the same time that they want something, they don’t. Desire completely escapes the myth of romantic love as it often becomes repulsion when one gets too close to one’s object of affection.

This object for Oliver comes in the shape of Anna (the mesmeric Mélanie Laurent), the kind of enviably cool French girl who goes hiking barefooted with the boys and discusses Derrida in a Dominique Sirop gown with the same grace and effortlessness. He meets her at a highbrow costume party in which he dresses up as Sigmund Freud and takes “patients” on a living room couch. One of these patients is Anna, hiding her radiating femininity dressed as Charlie Chaplin, and whose laryngitis keeps her from speaking. What would perhaps be a therapeutic impossibility for the role-playing “talking cure” becomes a rather charming approach to storytelling that evokes silent film’s wittily economical intertitles. Anna scribbles her muted speech on a note pad that she keeps showing Oliver: “Why are you at a party if you’re sad?” There’s something incredibly melancholic and immersive about this moment in the film, which introduces a string of scenes that evoke those very magical first few days in which miserably depressed mortals fall in love and act like immortal characters from a New Wave film, claiming the night and the city as their own and reading Liv Ullman biographies at open-’til-late bookstores.

While a great amount of celluloid has been spent fetishizing this very ephemeral period of mind-numbing bliss, Beginners keeps the anxieties attached to this instant of happy insanity at the foreground of the romance. Beginners is all about human ambiguity, contradiction, shades of gray, and the inherent imbrication of the joy of having something and the terror of losing it; the gratefulness of the moment is almost overridden by the dread, or knowledge, that it won’t last. This possibility of horror that accompanies granted happiness—the notion that now one has something to actually lose—is the fabric Beginners uses to delicately tease out its love story.

Oliver’s self-sabotaging mechanisms work to both guarantee the fantasy of romance and undermine its actualization. His psychoanalytically inclined insight, “I don’t really believe that it’s gonna work so I make sure that it doesn’t work,” is the driving force for the camera’s exploration of sadness just as much as the love affair’s quixotic thrills. The film’s very counter-zeitgeist awareness of the self as a mere variable in a much larger equation that it cannot control, as well as its disarming belief in the human subject as perpetually split, ends up outing lots of cinematic love stories (Sofia Coppola’s come to mind) as embarrassingly silly, air-filled masquerades of authorial pretension. Beginners is the real thing.

Focus Features
105 min
Mike Mills
Mike Mills
Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Mélanie Laurent, Mary Page Keller