Judge Brett Cullum is feeling a bit oppressed these days. Have the drug companies created a pill to suppress that yet?
I know what I like, and sex is not at the top of that list.
Director and writer Damion Dietz has never attempted to make the same movie twice, nor have any of his projects been in the same genre. Beverly Kills was a John Waters absurdist comedy, Neverland was a modern fantasy treatment of Peter Pan, and now Love Life is a romantic melodrama about a couple trapped in a loveless marriage of their own design. It is a movie that blends the story of a man struggling to come out with the simultaneous plot of his wife doing the same thing. It's a movie that seeks to conjoin the gay and lesbian experience, and at the same time pay homage to Bergman's immortal Scenes From a Marriage seen through a unique filter. It is a lush, sexy, meditative movie that offers a new take on "gay marriage" defined here as when a gay guy marries a lesbian for convenience.
Facts of the Case
Joe and Mary Hahn have what appears to be the perfect arrangement. On the surface they look like a happy middle class couple, and privately they can do what they want. Joe (Stephen D. Gill, seen briefly as a naked auditioner in Beverly Kills) is a retired pro baseball player who now coaches Junior College. He works out and cruises places like the park for casual male encounters and quick romps. Meanwhile his frigid wife Mary (Stephanie Kirchen, Beverly Kills and every other Dietz film) simply carries on without acting on lesbian desires which she has left back in college. They never have sex with each other, but do share a bed for sleeping. The idea is to not ask or tell, and as long as Joe doesn't get emotionally involved with his tricks things are acceptable. Another motivation is Mary's unknowing wealthy mother provides them with money as long as they keep up appearances. Then along comes an all too handsome landscaper (Keith Bearden, Beverly Kills) and Mary's former flame (Jill Kocalis, Beverly Kills) from college. They both demand more than just carnal acts from Joe and Mary. The two interlopers challenge the arrangement, and reveal the inherent unhappiness that comes with it.
Damion Dietz is not a typical independent director, and Love Life is anything but common. Many gay films deal with coming out, but we've never seen a tandem story about a man and woman who have chosen to compromise their identities on their own terms. Often gay films deal with the oppression of society, but here we have two individuals who have designed their own gilded cage of denial. The construct is what makes the film fascinating, and the whole thing hangs on little else. The characters are almost blank canvases that are caught in their own tempests formed in teacups, and what the audience has to do is observe and insert their own interpretations. Love Life is a stylized movie, and perhaps that is the common thread uniting this to the previous works of the director. Dietz is a true auter, choosing to write and direct his own films. He also produces the projects, and uses the same actors again and again as if he had a stock company of players just waiting in a cafe (more likely The Abbey of West Hollywood) waiting for his call.
The foursome of thespians that make up the core of the film's love quadrangle do great jobs of dealing with the stylized material. Stephanie Kirchen has been in every film by Damion Dietz, and she has to handle the hardest turn playing the wife who clings to the masquerade as if her life depends on it. She takes an icy character, and injects a good bit of her own natural softness to keep Mary from being just about anger and deception. Handsome, hirsute, and buff new comer Stephen Gil makes Joe stoic eye candy always ready to burst from his clothes and into the shower. He was sick through most of the shoot with a cold, and perhaps that helped him create the figurehead husband beaten down and exhausted from pretending. Then we have Jill Cozine and Keith Bearden who play the respective lovers of Mary and Joe, and they bring revolution with cameras and promises of real love outside the charade. Each character is comprised of Cliff Notes versions of real people, and the actors have the daunting task of finding depth when they are thrust into a film more about a masquerade that hardly slips significantly until the height of the climax. They also have to navigate intense love scenes which are shot unconventionally with attention to almost anything than what you would expect. It's a good group that is up to the challenge of playing constructs—people playing roles that have overtaken their lives.
The sets and props become obvious symbols, and take on a life of their own. Joe and Mary are in the midst of remodeling their house, and thus everything is covered in plastic sheets which create a protective barrier for their belongings and a suffocating sheen to every room. It's not a home, it's a temple of plastic that feels as cold and haunted as the relationship. Joe has a classic car he keeps under wraps in the garage. It's cherry red and convertible with leather interior. It seems more suited to an out gay man than the sensible BMW he drives routinely. Oddly enough the "Beemer" is one of the best-selling cars of gay men in America which puts a chink in his armor from the start.
Another remarkable stylistic trait of Love Life is the all synth soundtrack which recalls Tangerine Dream doing Risky Business back in the '80s. Jeff Jones is a frequent collaborator with Damion Dietz, and his trance inducing score carries the drama well. The music has a hypnotic effect, and gives more of a remote sheen to the proceedings. It's a nice compliment to a well designed film.
Water Bearer Films produced the DVD, and is having some help from TLA in the distribution. The full screen 1.33:1 aspect ratio is technically correct, and is the way Love Life was shown during its cinematic run at various film festivals. The film was shot digitally, and the transfer seems well done for DVD release. Accompanying the solid yet basic transfer is a stereo soundtrack which relates the Tangerine Dream inspired soundtrack and dialogue well. Also included is an essential commentary mislabeled as a "Director's Commentary" even though you get both Damion Dietz as well as Stephanie Kirchen's take on the production. A photo gallery is also included even though it has little depth other than a handful of publicity shots.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The film's greatest strength is ultimately its singular weakness. Being stylish and remote, Love Life will fly over many heads, and audiences wishing an easy time with things spelled out will leave unsatisfied. By having the lead characters so blank and whited out from their struggle to keep up a charade, they end up coming off as unlikeable in many ways. It's something that is an essential ingredient of the film, and it would be inescapable to not make Mary and Joe anything other than people who are less human than what they could be. It is this very listless quality that will turn off some viewers, and particularly the lesbian audience who will wish Mary were more fully formed and her story more meaty. The men seem fine with sex, but the women don't seem to connect outside of the bedroom in any real way. Some silly criticism has come up about the film from feminist thinkers who don't see that this a film about people far removed, and not the work of a (gasp!) man attempting to tell the story of two women who fall in love. Even at a scant hour and twenty minutes the film seems to languidly move at a meditative pace. It's stylish and slow, and that may frustrate if it fails to provoke.
Love Life is an interesting and daring vision of how eroticism breaks through the perfect masquerade of the straight world. It's a film that attempts to appeal to both gays and lesbians simultaneously by giving us two leads that are denying their identity to get along in the "real world." At a time when gay marriage is so hotly debated, it's an effective slap in the face to the sham any man-woman union can be. Although it's all too obvious how the journey will end, it is a fascinating ride to get everyone out from under the pretty plastic they've surrounded their home and souls in. In the end the lesson is too simple, but the style of the film is anything but. Damion Dietz is a director to watch. He takes miniscule budgets and makes them look lush. One can only imagine what he could do with a studio funded project, and here's to hoping he gets to make one soon. He joins the ranks of John Waters (A Dirty Shame) and Gregg Araki (Mysterious Skin) as being one of the most unique voices in independent GLBT cinema. Love Life never settles for simple "homosexual 101" material where someone comes out or a non-sexual drag queen saves the day. Instead it's a challenging vision about a man and a woman who build their own oppressive life to avoid complication, and find true freedom once they accept their roles as one of the "oppressed" members of the gay community.
Guilty of being a sexy thought provoking movie, Love Life is sentenced to being a film that should make studios take note.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Water Bearer Films
• Commentary with Director Damion Dietz and Actress Stephanie Kirchen
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