By Carla Sanchez Taylor
by Carla Sanchez Taylor (RiPple Puddle)
The lights fall and the canvas is empty.
Michael (Tracy Letts) and Mary (Debra Winger) are an unhappily married couple who manage a daily routine of polite, non-confrontational conversation before heading out to their unfulfilling jobs. We get caught up in their ever-familiar minutia: the seatbelt that locks, the leaky coffeepot, the curbside trash days. With a full-grown child and most of the important hurdles behind them, The Lovers lightly punts the viewer right into the couple’s matrimonial complacency and not so surprising long-term extra-marital relationships.
Upon learning that their son is coming to visit from college, the couple’s lovers, Richard (Aidan Gillen/Game of Thrones) and Lucy (Melora Walters/ Magnolia), individually urge them to leave their spouses and legitimize their affections in the light of day.
But something strange happens: Michael and Mary find themselves suddenly sexually drawn to each other and so they become…lovers.
While this may seem like a somewhat funny and sweetly predictable turn of events, it is at this point that the film begins to grab at you, shifting from humor to drama with impeccable timing. After their initial sexual encounter, the couple tries to go back to their regular routines, but neither has an understanding of how to proceed.
In a memorably playful scene, Mary finds herself giving Michael a phone call while out with Robert at a Chinese restaurant. Like many other times, she tells him that she will be home late due to the demands of work. He asks her where she is and with trepidation she tells him the name of the restaurant. Seductively, Michael says to her, “Order the duck.”
In this way, they soon find their lovers to be obligations, and their marriage takes on the symptoms of a clandestine affair.
There are big questions that this film doesn’t scatter from: is it realistic to assume that desire stays active throughout the lifespan of marriage? Can we gain insight from the difficulties of others? If so, do we have to work continuously at intimacy? Must we repeatedly ask the difficult questions and brace ourselves to listen with curiosity to the fantasies of our partners?
Perhaps the film’s intent was not aimed at the observation of marriage at all, but instead takes on a micro-existentialist striving need to look beyond what is in front of us to what we do not have.
Never-stagnant moments of silence act as negative space for the viewer to simply observe and answer questions for themselves. Debra Winger’s every breath is convincing. She is able to communicate just as beautifully with the slightest tilt of her chin, raise of an eyebrow, what she can with a page full of monologue. Letts’ ability to gently reveal the complicated layers of manhood, particularly the cinematically under-portrayed upper middle-age timestamp, leaves the viewer vulnerable, raw even.
This was a smart movie.
If anything was left lacking, this film effectively gripped in its observation but stops dead short of lending itself to further positioning. It gives a jump off point to start conversation about monogamy and marriage but it is left, in its original obscurity, for the viewer to ponder. Then again, this could be a good thing. The simple act of observation might help identify our own marital caveats, and therefore make us better able to achieve intimacy.
Maybe we can always be lovers.
The Lovers starring Debra Winger, Tracy Letts, Aidan Gillen, and Melora Walters is in theatres now.