Saturday, May 5, 2012


Last Friday, MoMA opened a new film series that celebrates the 10th anniversary of Focus Features. The series features ten films produced and/or distributed by the New York based film company. I've seen all ten at least once. A few I've seen multiple times. However, I chose to take another look at Beginners, the 2011 film written and directed by Mike Mills and starring Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer, who won his first Oscar for his performance. An offbeat and bittersweet romantic comedy, Beginners manages to be both complex and yet simple at the same time, and withstands additional viewings.

The film centers on Oliver (McGregor), a thirty-something man whose father has recently passed away. Through the use of narration, Oliver reflects on his and his father's past. Often, moments in the present will spark memories in Oliver and result in narrative flashbacks. The film gently floats back and forth in time. In the present we witness a new romance for Oliver, while in the past we are shown Oliver's dad coming out of the closet after the death of his wife -- a few short years before his own death from cancer. We are also taken even further back to Oliver's childhood where we meet his mother and discover aspects of his family life that have led Oliver to avoid commitments in his own relationships and remain single. Will things work out differently with his new girl?

The film is beautifully structured. The complex weaving of of space and time is effortless, never forced or jarring, and realistically captures the reflective state of Oliver's mind as he grieves the passing of his father. While at times episodic and seemingly unrelated, the scenes of past and present build and become linked together by the viewer. The cinematography by Kasper Tuxen features a soft, diffused look and frequently employs shallow depth of field to isolate Oliver and blur the background, giving the film the look of fuzzy memories and emphasizing Oliver's lost and lonely nature.

In addition to the masterfully nuanced performances of Plummer and McGregor, and Mills' expertly crafted screenplay, I also admire the pace of the film's complex editing. Editor Olivier Bugge Coutté deftly weaves scenes of past and present together while never disturbing the film's smooth and gentle, reflective tempo. Beginners tells a simple story in a complex manner. And yet, it never feels overly constructed or complex. The narrative, the characters, and the emotion shine through, engage you and remain with you. Isn't that what cinema is all about?

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