For a very personal film, Beginners is refreshingly non-narcissistic.
It's exuberant, even a little show-offy, but you don't feel that director Mike Mills is putting himself in the limelight. Mills was known as a graphic artist and music video director before he made his first feature, the coolly melancholic Thumbsucker, and his follow-up features a character who's clearly a version of Mills himself. Throughout, artist Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is seen working on a series of cartoons for a CD sleeve. Mills drew those cartoons himself – sometimes in tandem with McGregor – which is a case of a director showing his hand, literally.
Beginners is partly about a romantic crisis in Oliver's life, partly about his relationship with his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer). The old man announces – following the death of his wife of 45 years – that he is gay and intends at last to come out. This is exactly what happened to Mills's own father. Over the last four years of his life, we see Hal embracing his sexuality and a new lifestyle with panache, making the cautious Oliver a little uneasy. Suddenly Hal is dressing in rakish neckerchiefs, colourful sweaters and filling his life with badges of his new identity ("Gay Pride, Gay Book Club," mutters Oliver testily, shifting piles of his dad's effects. "What about the chair? Is the chair gay?"). Hal has a new gang of friends, a new political involvement and a tender relationship with a younger boyfriend (Goran Visnjic).
By contrast, Oliver is a solitary soul whose work as an artist tends to drag him into a morass of soul-searching. He's haunted by memories of his parents and other stray moments from his past. Both before and after Hal's death – the film's time scheme is a busy shuffling of narrative fragments – Oliver draws cartoons about a series of broken relationships. Mourning seems a big part of his existence even while his parents are alive.
Some sort of irrepressible life force is called for, clearly – and it comes in the form of a French actress named Anna (Mélanie Laurent). She and Oliver come together in what's traditionally termed a "cute meet" – at a Halloween party where Oliver is dressed as Sigmund Freud. Anna has laryngitis, so communicates only in scribbled notes, but turns out to have a breathy Gallic voice to match her mischievous spirit and flashing sloe eyes.
Laurent has a presence that the camera loves, but Beginners pushes her Dream Girlfriend qualities a touch close to the limit. And indeed, the film is soon in danger of becoming just too adorable. You know the score: love means goofy circus jazz, duffel coats and rollerskating through hotel lobbies.
Also sparking up Oliver's life is a mournful, bedraggled Jack Russell terrier named Arthur, whom he inherits from his dad. When Oliver shows Arthur his apartment – "Here's the kitchen. Here's the bedroom" – the dog does precisely nothing but stare, and you instantly guess it'sthinking, "This is the kitchen?" The dog also communicates with Oliver in subtitles: it's funny the first time. And it's largely unnecessary because Arthur's deadpan scruffiness is so expressive anyway.
Mills could have told his story relatively straight. Instead, he and editor Olivier Bugge Coutté construct the film as if they'd written down the script on playing cards and thrown them into the air: a simple narrative is gussied up with interpolated drawings, archive photos, bits of footage, voice-over passages, scientific or historical digressions. All this makes the film appealingly free-associative, essayistic, Wikipedia-ish. Beginners belongs to that strain of cinema you might call Philosophical Cute – those films that merge melancholia and whimsy while highlighting a director's personal idiosyncrasies and obsessions. Recent examples of Philosophical Cute would be Submarine, (500) Days of Summer and the work of Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know), whose latest film features a talking cat, and who happens to be married to Mike Mills. The Urtext of Philosophical Cute is Annie Hall: I detect a homage in the way Mélanie Laurent first appears in a bulky man's suit à la Diane Keaton.
Beginners comes that close to being grating in its hare-brained charm, but is saved by the genuine freedom, delicacy, and – yes – seriousness with which Mills puts it all together.
Christopher Plummer's Hal is the film's marvellously weighty centre – or rather, he plays a man who, late in life, casts off his weight to revel in lightness and joy. There's a very nice moment when under medication, Hal, who was a museum curator, looks around his hospital room and reads everything there as an art exhibit; Plummer carries it off superbly. Beginners is also Ewan McGregor's best performance in ages, partly because for most of the time, he isn't called on to impress us; there are moments when he just reacts to other people, looking doleful or harried, and a quiet, immense heaviness takes over his face. He makes a lovely tragi-comic duo with Arthur the pooch. At times, in their floppy melancholy, man resembles dog resembles man and I mean that as a compliment to mutt and McGregor both.
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