Love, particularly romantic love, the stuff of Valentine’s Day, romantic comedies and long moonlit walks, is regularly placed on a pedestal with many of us eager to buy into the idea that there is something unassailably perfect about the notion of ’til death do us part and selfless commitment to another.
But the fact of the matter is that we’re human, fallibly, feet-of-clay human, and while we might aspire to romantic perfection, the kind that moves someone to write a song and sing it to the heavens, we all too often fail to live up to the ideal.
Azazel Jacobs’ winningly honest film, The Lovers, explores the lives of Michael (Tracy Letts) and Mary (Debra Winger), two married, disillusioned, middle-aged people who are so overwhelmed by the impossibly demanding myths and ideals of love’s impressively-overwrought publicity machine, that they subvert them in the only way they know how – by each having an affair.
Like every adulterer, theirs is a world of stolen moments, of lies-about whereabouts and misrepresented circumstances with Michael, in love with flighty, emotionally-impetuous Lucy (Melora Walters) and Mary, equally enraptured with Robert (Aidan Gillen), a writer prone to grand gestures and some passive-aggressive manoeuvres.
You suspect that at some deep level Michael and Mary, who live in a world of beige and compromise, their home, work and inbetween lives, save for the moment they are living the part of the titular lovers, bland and drained of promise, know that each has long ago left the building marriage-wise.
But they labour on, many of the early scenes a painfully funny choreography of barely-concealed annoyance, frustration and stilted conversation, proof that each now barely tolerates the other, love having long since died a slow and uneventful death, their union only a shell with very little holding it together beyond lies and copious amounts of red wine and awkwardly-paused small talk.
Then a remarkable thing happens.
Just when they are both supposedly primed and ready to plunge the knife into the shambling zombie of their marriage, independently and frantically at times promising their long-suffering and now impatiently disbelieving lovers, that this is the moment it all happens and their new lives start, they fall back in love with each other.
Well, not so much love as a last-ditch renewal of sexual and personal attraction, fuelled by a very real fear of leaving behind something that has given their lives form and ever-declining meaning for years, and which is the only thing keeping their malcontented son Joel (Tyler Ross) coming home, this time with his new girlfriend Erin (Jessica Sula).
So last-minutes cold feet if you like, that sees the couple end up cheating, for that’s effectively what it is, on adulterous relationships they have now declared silently and publicly are the real deal, the passionate replacements for their moribund, lifeless, past its use-by date marriage.
It culminates in a very funny scene where Michael and Mary, both out on very public dates with their new partners, part of a commitment to add substance to their many promises that THIS IS IT, NO REALLY, I MEAN IT, end up on calling each other, ostensibly to come up with tired old excuses for staying out all night (working late, all night, a classic lie so commonly-used and universally-joked about that its very use suggests the two can’t even be bothered lying properly to each other anymore). But the conversation instead ends with them both home, frantically making love, or whatever the hell it is they still have, to each other.
It’s funny, ironic and messy, just like real life, like real romantic love, which is always so aspirationally pure but so down in the gutter compromised, whether we like to admit it or not.
Jacobs, who both wrote and directed the mostly pitch-perfect film, does judge either Michael or Mary, even when they’re patently behaving abominably, the general stance being one of calm acceptance that it is how love, for better or worse, plays out.
Even when Michael and Mary finally do the deed – the break-up of the marriage, not the sex although during their brief but furiously lustful renewal, it is frequent and intense – it is not clean and uncomplicated, as Lucy and Robert believe, but every bit as flawed and poorly-executed as any romantic entanglements before it, proof that though we aim high, we often end up, despite ourselves, falling far short.
The refreshing thing about the The Lovers is that it doesn’t come across as brutally despondent or cynical about love, or even marriage; in fact, it almost celebrates the power and veracity of love especially, offering its potency up as the reason why people like Michael and Mary, who are ticking all the boxes you’d expect of a couple their age, would do what they do, and how they would do it, cognisant though they are of the consequences.
They’re not presented as monsters or unfeelingly horrible people, torn as they are by their duplicity and underhanded, half-realised lives, but equally unable to keep living the lie of an empty shell of a relationship with each other.
Rather they are simply two people caught between the romantic perfectionism celebrated by society, and aggressively upheld by their still-idealistic college-aged son, and the stark realities of life down in the long-term relationship trenches.
Jacobs doesn’t always get the narrative to hum along in service to these grounded ideas with both the beginning and the end of Michael and Mary’s marital renaissance oddly and abruptly ushered in and out. Even so, the execution is poetic and unexpected, just like its occurrence, with the tone and feel of The Lovers deliciously on point throughout, bolstered by luminously bland tones, whimsically romantic music by Jacob’s longtime collaborator Mandy Hoffman, and a very real understanding sense that this is just the way it is.
Darkly quirky and as authentic as can be, despite a storyline replete with people acting out lies and subterfuge, though it has to be said in the service of some very real, deeply motivational emotional attachments, The Lovers is a gem, an admission that though romantic love is an appealingly ideal state of being and one worth pursuing, it comes with some hefty price tags, some so high that we might find ourselves in all kinds of bother and pretense trying to figure out how to pay them.