Thursday, January 12, 2012
In the beginning, graphic artist Oliver Fields (Ewan McGregor) optimistically observes, sadness did not yet exist. We first meet Oliver as he wanders through the barren home of his deceased father Hal (Christopher Plummer), packing up boxes and throwing out bags, and he is very sad. Four years earlier, shortly after the death of wife Georgia (Mary Page Keller), Hal admitted to Oliver that he was and is gay. Even as a boy Oliver knew there were problems with his parents’ marriage but could never get answers from his depressed mother or absent father. To console himself in grief Oliver begins confiding in Hal’s Jack Russell terrier Arthur (the wonderful Cosmo), who at times replies in discrete subtitles. Arthur responds to separation anxiety by whining and crying, so Oliver feels compelled to bring the dog with him everywhere, including a costume party. At this party Oliver (dressed as Sigmund Freud) meets French actress Anna (Mélanie Laurent), who’s dressed as a mute (actually she has laryngitis). They spend a chaste night together during which they remove their costumes and finally reveal themselves. A fragile courtship commences. Writer/director Mike Mills’ sublime new film explores the ways in which we hide our true selves from each other and, often, from ourselves; but his touch is delicate and his tone whimsical. Mills tells his story with fragments of memory, moving back and forth in time from Oliver’s childhood with his mother, to his growing acceptance of his now openly gay father, to the film’s present, as Oliver navigates a relationship with Anna while grappling with his fear of commitment. McGregor’s understatement works beautifully here, as does his unaffected interplay with Cosmo. With her open face and soulful eyes Laurent expresses Anna’s every hope and fear with subtle glances. And Plummer continues to astound with his playfulness and in his refusal to indulge in sentiment. Likewise Mills avoids easy answers or pat resolution. But his film still provides comfort, because it’s wise enough to know that, when it comes to understanding even those closest to us, we all are beginners.