Young Russian star triumphs in Ira Sachs’ stylish, unsparing drama
Long anticipated and well worth the wait, Ira Sachs’ second feature “Forty Shades of Blue,” opening at Film Forum September 28, strides confidently against the new mania for regression in American indiewood cinema.
Leagues away from the closing fetal pietà in “Mysterious Skin,” the squishy-caca games in “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” and now the neonatal envy of “Thumbsucker,” Sachs returns as a self-possessed artist who favors mature drama and high-wire emotionalism, taking us to difficult places and leaving us wiser, even grateful for it.
“Forty Shades” centers on Laura (Dina Korzun), an intelligent, lissome beauty brought from Moscow to Memphis by the renowned music producer Alan James (Rip Torn), some 30 years her senior. Cast in the mold of famed white producers like Chips Moman and Sam Phillips who popularized black rhythm & blues during the civil rights era, Alan is a rich, boisterous satyr who’s fathered a child with Laura and provides her a life undreamt of in Russia. But they are fatally mismatched. Suffering mutely while flawlessly miming a trophy amid Alan’s rowdy showbiz milieu, Laura writes occasional song lyrics and is a devoted mother but feels unactualized and mournfully dislocated.
Opening with a foxy main title sequence tracking Laura through a mall cosmetics section, Sachs quickly ups the ante with an awards banquet honoring Alan, where Torn delivers the acceptance speech in a gripping Method aria and veteran Memphis blues artist Jim Blackfoot commands us to “Show your love!” before launching into the torrid Dan Penn–Chips Moman classic, “Dark End of the Street.” Just as quickly, however, things sour as Alan discreetly ditches Laura to go carouse with his buds and chase a blonde groupie. Repairing to the hotel bar and drinking herself blotto, Laura is escorted home by a random lecher, and discovered in this state by Michael, Alan’s estranged adult son on his first visit home in many years, who arrived late for the banquet.
After an initial contretemps, Michael confesses to Laura that his own failing marriage has been upended by his wife’s unplanned pregnancy, and apologizes for his earlier hostility. She is immediately forgiving, and they establish a complicity that sets in motion a quasi-incestuous triangle. Their sexual hunger is eventually consummated—depicted in grueling back-to-back single-take scenes of Laura’s intercourse with Michael, then Alan—but Laura’s incipient awakening is stymied by the arrival of Michael’s wife, most notable for her blandness. Michael bids daddy a public fuck-you at a crowded picnic, and Laura’s final meltdown at the couple’s departure simultaneously confirms everyone’s worst suspicions and leaves both relationships mortally wounded.
An advance on themes of familial bondage and outsiderness first explored in “The Delta” (1997), “Forty Shades” similarly transforms autobiographical elements from the director’s upbringing—Alan is loosely inspired by Sachs’ own father, a Memphis real estate developer, and Laura by his father’s companion—within a tensile yet sturdy dramatic framework.
“Forty Shades” borrows some of its classical plotting from the late Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece “Charulata” (1964), in which the neglected wife of an industrious newspaperman blossoms under the romantic attentions of his visiting cousin, resulting in the bitterest of reconciliations. Sachs pays direct homage with a final, electrifying freeze-frame of Laura, and the Indian painting that dominates Alan and Laura’s living room may be further acknowledgment; he pans slowly across it the first time we hear Laura singing one of her lovely songs (actually penned by co-screenwriter Michael Rohatyn).
The comparatively modest $3 million budget afforded Sachs the acting chops required for this level of drama, and he conducts a mostly excellent cast. Plaudits have already been lavished on Rip Torn, but from first shot to last “Forty Shades” belongs to Korzun, introduced to Anglophone audiences in Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Last Resort” (2000). In her US debut, Korzun gives a sensational, house-wrecking performance, never making the same choice twice and endowing Laura with searching intelligence and mercurial wit while involving us totally in her stifled anguish. She is also impressively physical—starved for genuine love, Laura appears as a skeletal mannequin; just prior to her liaison with Michael, she tosses in her conjugal bed, radiating desire without uttering a word.
Luxuriating in filmcraft, “Forty Shades” boasts an immaculate, ‘70s-flavored production design and an original wardrobe for Korzun by co-executive producer Diane Von Furstenberg—wait for the turquoise-magenta single-sleeved silk tunic that Laura rocks one evening at a club—touch harking back to the studio-era women’s picture dressed by Adrian or Edith Head. Sachs makes especially fine use of Memphis r&b tracks to comment reflexively on the narrative. Over the main titles, Ben E. King croons “Outside her window, / I cry my life away,” announcing Laura and Michael’s impossible love, while “Dark End of the Street” portends their assignation––“Hiding in shadows, where we don’t belong, / living in darkness to hide our wrong.” The original score by Dickon Hinchliffe, used as the sound of Laura’s interiority, comes across as strangely over-directive.
For a film set so pointedly in the integrated microcosm of the Memphis music scene, there is a curious imbalance and latent unease in its racial representations. “Forty Shades” takes in a great number of black folks near the start, with the multiracial awards gala and Alan’s circle of old-school r & b dawgs. Before long, however, the black supporting cast is pared away to Alan and Laura’s bluff housekeeper, background players at the picnic, and a handful of other extras. While all the protagonists are white, in the film’s unconscious Alan, through his lifelong intimacy with black musicians, is symbolically “blackened,” faintly murmuring a miscegenation anxiety visually underscored by Laura’s pristine, marmoreal complexion.
What finally seems most valuable about “Forty Shades” at the time of a revanchist assault on women’s rights is its power to transport us so convincingly into Laura’s desperate vulnerability. Through her, the film compels us to chafe against the ties of economic dependence and even maternity that bind her to Alan, and to confront headlong Michael’s sexual opportunism and craven indifference. To share, in other words, Laura’s irrefutable instinct for freedom.