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Tell Laura We Love Her: Ira Sachs’ “Forty Shades of Blue”

Tell Laura We Love Her: Ira Sachs' "Forty Shades of Blue"

It feels like precious little happens in “Forty Shades of Blue” — surprising for a film so fraught with disintegrating relationships and more than its fair share of infidelity. This isn’t meant to be an indictment, but praise: Ira Sachs’ ostensibly sensational narrative is muted through a quietly observational aesthetic, such that emotional states resonate more palpably than any single event. There is no American correlate for “Forty Shades of Blue,” the most apt comparison for its even temper and tumble of unvarnished emotion lies across the ocean with French director Maurice Pialat. Like Pialat, Sachs has gracefully captured the graceless vicissitudes of real life. And what lingers longest? The profound and desperate isolation of Dina Korzun’s Laura, a Russian émigré living in Memphis.

Lithe, blonde, and leggy, Laura is, at least outwardly, the quintessence of a musician’s arm jewelry. She lives with Alan James (Rip Torn), an aging blues producer who is revered despite his prickly nature and frequent tantrums. Alan has fathered Laura’s three-year-old child, but their relationship is loveless. He’s guilty on numerous infidelity counts—most notably, Alan beds a groupie-cum-aspiring singer at a hotel while Laura ambles the lobby downstairs—and she spends most of her time wandering listlessly through their sprawling ranch home, drinking white wine to obliterate the perpetual isolation that dulls her eyes and furrows her brow.

Enter Michael (Darren Burrows), Alan’s son who’s visiting Memphis for the first time in years, to see his estranged father and find refuge from his broken marriage. Their first encounter isn’t terribly auspicious: Michael secretly observes Laura as she fends off the advances of a male suitor who brought her home. In his eyes, she’s a slut with profiteering designs; from her perspective, however, left in the vacuum created by Alan’s absence, their interactions slowly change from disdain to indifference to affection, and eventually to sex, which threatens the sanctity of this bizarre love triangle. Yet coupling doesn’t come as the palliative either had hoped it would be. For one sweaty minute, Michael and Laura are lost in the moment, intent, even desperate on achieving release. After they unclench, his frame is once again taut with the weight of his anxieties; her eyes return to their glassy, deadened sorrow.

The remainder is essentially a tangle of sundry thematics and events — generational antipathies, cultural disconnect, and moral quandaries are secondary compared with the bleak despondency carried by Dina Korzun’s remarkable performance. Just as “Forty Shades” feels not so much filmed as observed and its events are not so much directed as allowed to transpire, Korzun’s Laura is organically felt, her character less acted than just plain inhabited. She of course benefits from her director’s aesthetic—Sachs heightens Laura’s sense of isolation by placing her as a lone pillar amongst a swirling crowd, or at the periphery of a focused audience — but conveys the most profoundly crushing sentiments when left all alone. Her willowy frame, normally composed and graceful in public, seems to wilt under the oppressive quiet of her empty home; it’s clear that the public appearances with Alan are performative, and that home is the only place where she’s allowed to truly be herself. Not a novel concept to be sure, but borne on Korzun’s considerable chops, never have I seen the dichotomy rendered in so devastating a fashion—watch the extraordinary subtle fluctuations as sadness bubbles perpetually under her surface calm, receding and returning again, without ever abating or blowing up into full emotional breakdown. If there’s a problem with Korzun’s performance, it’s that Torn (a distant and callous cipher) and Burrows (a charisma-less one) can’t hope to match her enthralling depth. She obliterates their presences from the screen.

[James Crawford is a staff writer at Reverse Shot and also writes for The Village Voice.]

Rip Torn in Ira Sachs’ “Forty Shades of Blue”. Photo courtesy First Look Pictures.

Take 2

By Lauren Kaminsky

The faraway wail of a train whistle is the last note played in “Forty Shades of Blue,” effectively ending the action onscreen by making us suddenly aware of the possibilities off-screen. The train’s aural intrusion recasts Dina Korzun’s Laura as a reincarnation of Anna Karenina, doomed to dignify suffering because her hopes for happiness yielded alienation and shame. The story is different, but Laura’s desire and contempt and regret will resonate. Absent entirely is Tolstoy’s heavy-handed moralizing; what we see instead is all the more compelling and pathetic for being capriciously human.

“Forty Shades of Blue” collapses the chronology of the Karenina narrative on itself, leaving our heroine utterly, realistically alone. By the time Laura flees from her older, philandering husband-to-be (Rip Torn), we can’t possibly harbor any romantic hope for a future with her handsome, selfish young lover (Darren Burrows). She does what she does for herself and she is left with no one but herself to answer to; mercifully, her son isn’t used to demonizing her desire for happiness. Here, finally, is a film with enough respect for its heroine to let her punish herself for her mistakes.

We leave Laura at a crossroads: she might get back in the car; she might keep walking down that impossibly dark, anonymous road; she might throw herself in front of a train, but she probably won’t—moments before her movements freeze and the credits roll, she stops wiping her eyes, her pace changes, and perhaps she is thinking of how life could still bring happiness. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, indeed. But it is the fallible, inconsistent, human dignity that this film allows its characters that makes it singularly, quietly devastating.

[Lauren Kaminsky is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]

Dina Korzun and Darren Burrows in “Forty Shades of Blue”. Photo: Courtesy First Look Pictures.

Take 3

by Eric Hynes

Thirty-six years after his devastating performance in Milton Moses Ginsberg’s “Coming Apart,” Rip Torn finally has a part that allows him to do more than stand around barking and cussing. Well into his seventies and far removed from the burly Norman Mailer magnetism he displayed for Ginsberg onscreen and for Elia Kazan onstage, “Forty Shades of Blue” lets Torn strut, limp, weep, and stare the camera down with his unrelentingly dark eyes. His method-acting arsenal is both deeper and less showy than Harvey Keitel’s, which might explain why subtlety-skittish directors prefer the latter actor for these brawny-blubberer roles and hire Torn instead for one-note turns with his baritone. Credit Ira Sachs for giving Torn room to move, and for knowing that a professional supporting player and space-sharer would ultimately let his co-star, Dina Korzun, run off with the film.

After her bravura performance in Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Last Resort” (2001), Korzun’s turn here shouldn’t surprise, but she’s such a singular presence that comparisons and referents—even to her own past work—seem ridiculous. Korzun’s Laura, the Russian trophy companion of Torn’s aging record producer, is not only alien to her Memphis acquaintances and surroundings, but alien to whatever American screens “Forty Shades of Blue” appears on. There’s not a line she delivers (or movement she makes) that doesn’t demand pause. Not because of her Russian accent —her English is excellent—but because each word and phrase comes out sounding newly created.

Nothing about Laura is natural, not her speech, not her gate, not her expressions or timing. She says too much, she smiles too deliberately, she’s somehow both poker-faced and all-revealing, she’s all elbows and angles and eyes etch-a-sketching lines of thoughts and feelings from corner to corner. Watching her is witnessing the painful construction of a new life, and considering the stereotype of the frigid Russian bride she at first seems to fill, the fullness and detailed universality of Korzun’s characterization is nothing short of miraculous.

[Eric Hynes is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]

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