Alain Resnais titled one of his later films Life Is a Novel, an idea he’d already illustrated with such metanarratives as Providence and Last Year at Marienbad. Danish director Christoffer Boe’s debut feature, Reconstruction, was made 40 years after the French New Wave crested, but it has a strong aroma of Resnais and his peers. The film, which won the Camera d’Or at Cannes in 2003, is elegant and intriguing, if ultimately slight. It might have been titled Life Is a Short Story—although some of Boe’s glibly stylish images suggest perfume commercials more than any form of literature.
Reconstruction is one of those movies that trade in cinema’s ability to conjure variations on the same evident reality. Boe and co-writer Mogens Rukov’s scenario is intentionally mystifying, yet upfront about its intentions. “It’s all a film. It’s all a construction,” announces the narrator, who is soon revealed to be a noted Swedish author, August (Krister Henriksson), as well as the tale’s apparent inventor. Visiting Copenhagen to deliver a series of lectures, August is mostly (though not entirely) an observer of the movie’s events. The central character is Alex (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), a Danish photographer with a Stockholm-bred girlfriend, Simone. One day, he walks into a bar and is instantly smitten with another Swedish woman, Aimee.
If Alex acts as if he already knows Aimee, there’s a good reason: Both women are played by the same actress, Maria Bonnevie, who previously starred in Jerusalem and Insomnia (the Stellan Skarsgård original, not the Al Pacino remake). Aimee has blonder, looser hair than Simone, who’s partial to braids. She also happens to be the author’s wife, aimlessly amusing herself in a foreign city while her, uh, august spouse answers his admirers’ respectfully posed questions. So she’s susceptible to the suggestion of an absolute stranger that they should immediately go together to Rome. Or at least one version of Aimee is susceptible to one version of Alex.
The principal complication is that Alex’s impulsive declaration of love to Aimee wipes out his previous life. Suddenly, he has no apartment, no friends, no Simone. The only person who now recognizes him is Aimee, with whom he has shared only a couple of cigarettes, a few snatches of conversation, and one night of love-making, rendered in red-tinted, shallow-focus extreme close-ups. This development may resemble too closely the plot of a current Hollywood mediocrity, but it is a snappy distillation of the leap of faith required by a new romance. Reconstruction even endows its Twilight Zone twist with a classical pedigree: In the climactic scene that will determine their future, Alex is Orpheus and Aimee is Eurydice.
The film’s other references to an established canon derive primarily from the Nouvelle Vague and its imitators, with an occasional nod to fellow Dane Lars von Trier. Evocatively filmed by Manuel Alberto Claro and cunningly edited, Reconstruction contrasts the lyrical and the clinical. The rapturous images of the lovers on the street and in the subway are framed by abstracted urban vistas and surveillance-style aerial shots of Copenhagen, in which the characters are sited by overlaid dots, names, and locations. The story also makes much of cigarettes and seems to transpire in a world without mobile phones—attributes that suggest the film is a glamorous antique.
So, alas, do the movie’s less appealing aspects, from its use of Samuel Barber’s cinematically overexposed “Adagio for Strings” to its shallow, male-centered outlook. Boe’s idea of human interaction is all glances and feints, and his vision of sensual attraction is a familiar one: young, pretty, and blond. Perhaps the emphasis on purely visual affinity expresses the director’s philosophy of cinema—which does, after all, depend heavily on pretty pictures. And maybe Alex and Aimee’s halting rapport reflects the fact that they speak closely related yet separate languages. It seems more likely, though, that Reconstruction’s glimmers of existential consciousness are just part of the immaculate décor.
Most films about love—whether factual or fictional, straight or gay—focus on giddy moments of infatuation of the sort celebrated in Reconstruction. Indeed, New York director Jim de Sève’s Tying the Knot includes some almost conventional romantic images of bride and bride and groom and groom, making vows of eternal love they, like hetero couples, may not be able to keep. What clinches this cinematically undistinguished but morally powerful documentary, however, are the tales of two people who, in a more equitable society, would be a widow and a widower. The film tells a larger story, of course, but nothing in it is as poignant as Mickie, a Florida cop whose policewoman partner was shot dead in the line of duty, and Sam, an Oklahoma rancher whose late lover’s family is trying to evict him.
Tying the Knot was filmed in part while gay-marriage elation was sweeping California, Massachusetts, and de Sève’s own home state, and it includes excursions to Holland and Canada, where same-sex unions are official. It also journeys into the past, both recent and ancient. Social historian E.J. Graff, author of What Is Marriage For?, explains that matrimony, far from being the primeval and unchangeable institution the defense-of-marriage types describe, has changed dramatically over the centuries. She notes, for example, that wedlock was originally a business proposition, and that it didn’t become a Catholic sacrament until 1215.
For those who can’t think quite so far back, de Sève has a more modern example: the case of Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter, who had to flee from Virginia to D.C. in the mid-’60s because their nuptials violated the Old Dominion’s statue against “miscegenation.” So relevant they even made a TV movie about it—clips are included—the Lovings’ interracial marriage was finally validated by a 1967 Supreme Court decision. These days, of course, conservatives insist that race and sexual orientation aren’t comparable. But the people who make that argument are, Tying the Knot suggests, the same ones who 50 years ago insisted that God never intended for people of different skin colors to go to school, church, or bed together.
But as the movie recounts the sometimes parallel evolutions of civil marriage and legal discrimination, it keeps returning to Mickie and Sam. She expected to receive a pension and death benefits from her lover, Lois, but Lois’ previously sympathetic sister battled to win them for her family. Sam’s partner of more than 20 years, Earl, left everything to Sam, but Earl’s relatives fought to take away the ranch where the two men raised Sam’s three sons. Asked what was different about living with Earl or his former wife, Sam says, “Other than sex, not a thing.” It may be hard for puritanical opponents of gay marriage to think of anything but sex, but Tying the Knot makes it abundantly clear that the fundamental issue is equality—something that no truly just society can ignore.CP