Saturday, September 30, 2023

all of us strangers

Occasionally a film feels otherworldly, cosmic, almost too celestial (and also, directly personal) to critique. Unlike his other, more natural, reserved works, Andrew Haigh's All of Us Strangers announces itself boldly, beginning with swelling music and a glowing burst of light (the sun, moon, and the stars emerge in this movie as more than just ornamental window dressing). It sets Adam (Andrew Scott) high up in his glass tower (the skyscraper sort that seem to be always sprouting like silvered weeds on the edges of major metropolises with sleek, flavorless, ticky tacky tech and design). The skyline view of London is so vast and so distant from the city that it's inscrutable--an urban-appearing building above little of interest--and seemingly sparsely populated, with new tenants to come.

Adam is working on a script of his childhood. He's rummaging a plastic container under the bed of photos and items from his past, including a symbolic angel tree-topper, whilst playing late 80s Top of the Pops. A coquettish younger neighbor--the mustached, drunken Harry (Paul Mescal)--comes up to his apartment and hits on him late one night, but Adam ultimately rebuffs him. 

In a rut with his writing, Adam visits the London suburb where he grew up. Suddenly, he sees his long dead father (Jamie Bell) out in a field, who leads him to his long dead mother (Claire Foy) at their old house. The quaint Tudor-style home is in strong visual contrast to Adam's current dwelling, as if he's scrambled away as far as he could from his former existence, even if it's still only a train ride away. And it's with this house specifically, shot on location in Haigh's actual childhood home, that this film (loosely adapted from a 1987 novel, Strangers by Taichi Yamada) becomes an unshakeable, uniquely, intensely personal adaptation. The two parents died in a car crash in the late 80s when Adam was a boy (he remarks how neatly banal their circumstance of death is within the story--which pointedly feels true to Adam's character, but also a knowing, perhaps insecure, interjection of Haigh's). Mum and Dad appear to Adam, wondering what his son has become, carrying on throughout their house, frozen in age right before they died, likely a tad younger than Adam's current age. 

Meanwhile back in London, Adam begins a relationship with Harry of late night conversation, club-going and really good sex, that seems to enliven Adam and also deepen his comfort with his own sexuality. The sex scenes express a sensuality and carnality that's pertinent to the story, and also the sort of agitated weirdness of Adam's predicament--his body and traumatic perspective as he navigates past and present. He "comes out" to his parents, as he revisits them repeatedly at their house on their separate plane of actuality. 

The film presents his parents' otherworld matter-of-factly, as the best cinematic ghost tales do, whether they are comic, horror, or dramatic. Sometimes the film suddenly veers dreamlike into the surreal: less so with imagery, but more with the movie's preeminent sound design that pitches, swerves and drops out in occasional flourishes. Overall, a sincere, straightforward approach allows the film to build emotional punches. I found myself not crying in the heat of swelling impassioned moments, but in nondescript spaces afterward, as if emotions were catching up with me or I with them--a sensation with film I'm not usually accustomed to. 

There are very good, quietly searing performances, with Scott's beautiful, aching turn at the helm. He has an emotional, knotty quality that behooves Adam. Mescal, so affecting last year in Aftersun, is different here, but could also be that character's kin (it seems fitting to see Mescal caught once again in strobe light). But the through-the-years familiar Foy and Bell are a bit of more of a gamble casting-wise that end up surprisingly working so well. Foy is an actress masterful at observing others, and those busy, searching eyes add to incredible tension, humor and sadness of the coming out scene and also a brilliant centerpiece Christmas tree trimming backed by the Pet Shop Boys' rendition of "Always on My Mind" (that duende 80s mix of hi-NRG upbeat with the deeply regretful). When Mum probes Adam on his loneliness of being gay (a commonly reported worry / slight from parents in coming out experiences), it's to this film and story's immense credit that Adam is portrayed as indeed lonely, and to Foy's that she plays the moment so ambivalently without a warm sense of closure. You don't want these two characters played by people who feel too actorly or too glossy, and somehow Foy and Bell communicate a relaxed organic-ness (and a heartbreaking, wound-up tightness in their characters' awareness of their deaths).

In curious, disarming ways, All of Us Strangers inverts and fuses the two main tropes of queer cinema: the coming-of-age tale and the love story. While the elements here aren't always entirely slam-dunk successful, the rough-hewn risk-taking, the piercing emotions of the film are electric. For such tricky terrain, Haigh's direction and writing feels so remarkably at ease. Jonathan Alberts' editing carries the film smoothly. The ending, employing a booming love song and the film's cosmic light motifs, seems to burn through the screen; it isn't trite nor cheesy, but almost emotionally overwhelming (and exciting!) in its eeriness and simplicity. To the stranger who picked the very last person in the standby line to give their unneeded, extra ticket to, thank you. ****

-Jeffery Berg

My interview with Andrew Haigh in the wake of Weekend, now 12 years-old. A stunning film, but fascinating and heartening to see how much his work has continued to evolve since then.

No comments:

Post a Comment