The air that encircles Azazel Jacobs’ The Lovers is suffused with an extraordinary, almost overwhelming, sense of longing. It’s a longing spurred by loneliness and exacerbated by professional and personal disappointment. This is a film that is unmistakably aware of the cumulative regret that comes with fantasizing about correcting past mistakes, and about the measures we take to complicate and distract ourselves from certain, oft-unbearable clinical truth. Jacobs captures the tiny anxieties that ornate our days-in-days-out: strained conversations with coworkers, the painful, skull-clutching feeling of entering your office cubicle to turn on your workstation, and staring at the black void of a monitor as you wait for its screen to illuminate. And yet The Lovers never despairs. It never succumbs to hopelessness or vapid nihilism. It’s a film charged with a baffling energy that recalls the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love and Sarah Polley’s Take this Waltz. The Lovers is a worthy companion piece to those two (personal) tomes, nurturing those films’ disquiet romanticism into one of the most delightful experiences at the theater this year.
Michael (Tracy Letts) and Mary (Debra Winger) are a married couple embroiled in affairs. Neither can seem to muster a cogent sentence to one another as they’re so often finding themselves residing to separate rooms, each texting their respective paramours. In Michael’s case, he’s making lofty plans with his lover, Lucy (Melora Walters), a ballet instructor, as he promises to break things off with his wife following a visit from the married couple’s college-aged son, Joel (Tyler Ross). Meanwhile, Mary makes lunchtime sojourns with her sensitive lover, Robert (Aidan Gillian), a would-be writer attempting to cajole Mary to end things with her husband. She, too, sees the most opportune time to end things after Joel’s visit. Everyone is engineering their escape. So as one can expect, everything most certainly does not go according to their plan.
Michael’s cell phone rings perpetually, with Lucy’s number amusingly saved in all-CAPS as “WORK”. He strains to balance their relationship, drawing Lucy’s ire as she grows impatient with the sketchy projected deadline to end his marriage. Mary, too, struggles to keep herself invested in her work, finding herself disinterested in Robert’s ostentatious readings. Their affairs crumble and with Joel’s looming, Michael and Mary find themselves drawn to one another in a way that they haven’t felt in years.
Joel’s impending arrival with his girlfriend Erin (Jessica Sula) serves as a particularly intriguing device, where Jacobs will sparingly cut to the couple as they prepare for that always stressful moment where your parents meet your girlfriend. Yet Joel’s anxieties are especially more pronounced, suggesting an all too vivid understanding of his parents’ strained relationship and infidelities. It’s baffling to Erin. Though in Joel there’s a heavy burden in watching the people he love(s/d) maintain a façade. Jacobs understands the complicated image that children have of their parents and the blurry line between naivety and arrogance, where a child thinks they can dictate what their parents’ relationship is versus what it’s supposed to be.
Composed by a member of Jacobs’ retinue, Mandy Hoffman, The Lovers glides to an often uncomfortable but nevertheless appropriate score reminiscent of Jon Brion’s work in Punch-Drunk Love. It’s marked by an ever-present anxiety, compounded with a flush of whimsy and romanticism. Hoffman’s persistent score is vital to the film’s tonal success, as it’s careful not to anticipate it’s performers’ digressions, which often times calls on Letts and Winger to erratically conceal their affairs. Speaking of which: the two are a remarkable pair. Jacobs frames much of the film’s communication through texts, texts that are rarely ever made present to the audience, so we’re forced to consider the details of their conversation through their subtle inflections. Their gestures accumulate in persuasive ways that’s a testament to their skill, along with the silent film origins that The Lovers borrows from extensively – a key moment of the film finds Letts and Winger gazing into one another’s eyes in a scene reminiscent of the conclusion of Chaplin’s City Lights. True love may not require a new set of eyes, but instead the ability to communicate. Not sure which one is more inconceivable.