As played by Dina Korzun, I didn't understand this woman character at all. She's closed off, remote, seems not to use the mind that is her own, and puts up with all sorts of horseshit from her boorish man, Memphis music producer Alan James (Rip Torn, who tears up the screen with his raging bull persona). She looks like a fashion model, a slender little slip of a thing dressed in wonderful clothes. We learn that she is originally from Russia, and has a three-year-old child. She appears somewhat bored with her wealthy lifestyle and mansion, and -- here's the thing... she's either completely inaccessible or she doesn't use the brains in her head.
The movie follows this woman, Laura, during a particularly intense introspective period. A universe of power, music, and the prevailing, loving, freewheeling spirit of Memphis bluegrass surround her. Ira Sachs, whose previous masterpiece The Delta showed lonely, isolated members of the lower class and the dispossessed reaching out to one another, now shows a more middle-to-upper class variation of the same thing: the loneliness of being inside one's own skin, the inability to communicate a depth of feeling you know but can't fully articulate. That the woman is beautiful and model-perfect doesn't take away from the fact that she's alone.
For my money, Sachs is one of the most promising and gifted filmmakers working today. His stories aren't depressing: The irony is they're filled with such a rich sense of joy, exuberance, and vitality even as the characters are stuck in their own prisons, as if life is full of bounty and living is full of fear. He allows his characters to exist in a fully believable "real world," where the camerawork isn't slick but rather vital. The camera follows the actors not as they're acting, but as they're living. The grainy pulse of the film stock takes on a beauty in its rawness. His movies feel close to home in a way that movies almost never do.
On my first viewing of Forty Shades, I complained that the film was not about Alan James, who I found far more complex and compelling than his remote girlfriend. Yet as the weeks drew on, I found myself thinking more of Laura -- and wondering if Alan was easier to pin down than she was. I thought the actress playing the role was a vacant model type from whom Sachs had drawn a performance through typecasting, only much later realizing how brilliantly thought through the performance by Dina Korzun was. (Regular art house moviegoers may remember from Last Resort.) She's a real actress who so fully embodies this type of character that the acting is completely invisible.
Of course, I felt a profound dislike of Laura. "Why can't you just get on with your life, for Christ's sake?" I thought, in a very Alan-like state of mind while sitting through Forty Shades. When Alan's son Michael (Darren E. Burrows), from a previous failed marriage, shows up and fails to connect on any meaningful level with his old man, he finds a strange and covert attraction for Laura. This closed-off woman finds an interesting foil in a preppy, passive-aggressive, clearly unhappy young man, and their affair doesn't play out as remotely poignant, but painful. They're both in search of something, and their passion seems to pass the time without leading anywhere.
The movie is Laura's. She goes through a small step of self-discovery, by virtue of a difficult time between herself, Alan, and Michael. The final scene where she's walking, pursued by the sound of a honking horn and a pair of car headlights, is Sachs at his most sublime, finding an image that suggests both freedom and stalking, an opportunity for escape and a slowly approaching cage. If one hates women, one would never know to empathize with this woman's situation -- no matter how distant she seems, no matter how closed off she appears, no matter how righteous one's own opinions are. On a first viewing, I was stunned by the power of the image; and weeks later it remains with me as a source of wonder. I'd like to believe Laura finds her way, and finds an avenue away from the men who hurt women and the woman who wants to be hurt. I never truly understood her in Forty Shades, but after a great deal of thought, I believe I'm trying to.
For some films, there's that delayed reaction. That's the strangeness of writing criticism: You write from your feelings in the given moment. Thank God you don't have to write about some things until weeks later. I was prepared to slag Forty Shades with a two-star review, citing it as a failed emotional test from one of our great new filmmakers. Now I wonder if my rating is too low, and whether there's more this film will have to offer when I rediscover it again. Some films deserve to be rekindled over time, so take my considerations with a grain of salt. If I hate movies about women I don't understand, it makes one wonder whether it's the film that's misguided, or if that reflects back on the critic. Screw whatever I say. Go support honest filmmaking and see Forty Shades of Blue.
Aka 40 Shades of Blue.
And one shade of pink.
Run time: 108 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 7th December 2005
Distributed by: First Look Media
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 60%
Fresh: 31 Rotten: 21
IMDB: 6.0 / 10
Director: Ira Sachs
Starring: Dina Korzun as Laura, Rip Torn as Alan James, Darren E. Burrows as Michael James (as Darren Burrows), Andrew Henderson as Sam James, Elizabeth Morton as Cindy, Babysitter (as Liz Morton), Joanne Pankow as Aunt Betty
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