The tragedy of Tom Cullen’s “Pink Wall” — a familiar but deeply felt achronological relationship drama in the vein of “Blue Valentine” and François Ozon’s “5 x 2” — is that neither of its central characters know they’re in a movie. The soft lighting, shifting aspect-ratios, and synth-driven music should have been a dead giveaway, but it’s easy to develop a kind of tunnel-vision when you’re in love. If only Jenna (Tatiana Maslany) or Leon (Jay Duplass) had been able to step back from themselves for a moment and see the big picture, perhaps they would have been able to avoid a lot of heartache in the long run.
Cullen, so memorable as an actor in Andrew Haigh’s “Weekend,” has crafted a directorial debut as spread out as that film was compressed. Knocking its timeline sideways for a diorama-like, Tralfamadorian look at the ups and downs of an obviously doomed love story, “Pink Wall” offers a clinical post-mortem for a partnership that was never going to work out. It’s a fractured saga about how intimacy can interfere with perspective; how a desire for closeness can blind people to their broader needs. Even its title, which refers to an irrelevant detail in an otherwise devastating conversation, points toward a painfully universal inclination to get hung up on the little things that keep us from being happy. If Cullen’s film is spread too thin to do anything more than indicate at these truths, it nevertheless identifies them with an unvarnished honesty that’s rare to see on screen.
Of course, that may owe less to the success of Cullen’s movie than it does to the failings of his chosen medium. Movies are great at romance, but shit at relationships; drama requires conflict, while monogamy relies on comfort. Your mileage may vary, but there’s a measure of truth to the idea that a little boredom isn’t necessarily a bad thing — that some kind of equilibrium might be essential to long-term success. Jenna and Leon are wobbly from the night they first meet, though it takes them a few years to figure that out.
“Pink Wall” affords its audience a clearer vantage point, as the film opens with a tense moment during the fourth year of their relationship (big title cards announce the six time periods, each of which is distilled into a single scene). The first thing you notice is Leon’s insecurity, as a lunch with Jenna’s family spirals out of control when her brother insinuates that her boyfriend isn’t much of a man; the term “cuck” is never said aloud, but you can feel it somewhere on the cutting room floor.
This, it turns out, is a sore spot: A whiny former DJ who’s always leaned on his relationship as a crutch for his ambition, Leon knows on some level that he’s holding Jenna back. This dynamic began on a beautiful note, as a trip back to the night they met reveals that it was Leon who gave Jenna the confidence she needed to follow her dream of becoming a film producer, but over time it curdles into something unsustainable. It’s not a moral imbalance so much as a fundamental incompatibility; they’re trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. When Jenna says she wants to “do shit” with her life, she’s talking about her work; for Leon, their relationship is the shit that he does (in other words, it’s an open wound for toxic masculinity). She sees him as an obstacle and he sees her as a solution. Maslany’s smarts and fiery self-determination make it easier to sympathize with her character, but no one is necessarily in the right — it’s more a case of two people who don’t realize and/or won’t reckon with the fact that they want different things from each other.
And so we pinball through the years as the movie’s structure allows us a wisdom that no couple ever gets to have for themselves. The individual sequences, which Cullen allows to play out at length, are snappy and watchable in the way that romantic entanglements naturally are (the meet-cute and the kiss-off are far and away the strongest bits, even if the lion’s share of the drama is baked into the more ambiguous moments between them. The screen dimensions are switched up so that viewers don’t get unstuck in time — the first year is shot in 4:3, giving it the feeling of a home video, while later sections default to 16:9 — and the dialogue is vested with the volatility of real squabbles, whether it was improvised or just cannily scripted.
And while the conceit doesn’t allow much time for specifics, considering that entire years of a life together have to be surmised by a single conversation or two, Maslany endows the film with the immediacy it needs to make each scene feel like it’s taking place in the present. A gifted actress who happens to be Cullen’s partner of several years, Maslany plays Jenna as the tiniest bit feral, and is able to spend the entire movie dancing across the fine line between laughter and tears; you can tell that she loves Leon despite what she’s looking for, and the way that she’s defeated by that disconnect is as truthful as it is upsetting. There may not be much to “Pink Wall” that you haven’t seen in a dozen other indies about millennials in crisis, but Cullen’s woozy and ultra-watchable debut plunges straight into the heart of the matter, and leaves you wondering what parts of your own relationship might be just beyond your field of vision.
“Pink Wall” premiered at SXSW 2019. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.