Unbeknownst to most of us, our first meaningful relationships are the ones our parents share. Though the carnal attractions between a husband and wife may remain a curious mystery to young children, little of the dynamics of marriage escapes youthful eyes, and even less goes unabsorbed. The example we receive as children influences, whether by mimicry or reaction, the way we nurture, seek out or sabotage our partnerships. If we love our parents, this is unavoidable. Beginners is a stunning realisation of a story that delicately locates the places where one couples’ marriage has imprinted itself upon the new relationship of their now-orphaned adult son.
Oliver (Ewan MacGregor) is a 38-year-old illustrator of morbid/twee outsider sketches á la David Shrigley. His work is propelled by his romantic misadventures, self-styled loneliness, and admiration for his parents and their suffering with cancer and a decades-long stale marriage. Oliver’s father Hal (Christopher Plummer) came out four years before his death, found love, a lively social circle and some real level of happiness. Alongside a period of blissful ignorance as a boy, Hal’s late burst of joy bookends a long romantic drought for Oliver, in which he doesn’t really believe he can have a successful relationship. In the wake of his losses, Oliver meets the wide-eyed waif Anna (Melanie Laurent), and his sweet encounters with her are steeped in the memory of his love for his parents and the love lost between them.
Oliver also inherits Arthur, his fathers’ Jack Russell, and talks to it as though it were a child. The animal, which I’m told is named Cosmo in real life, is trained and wrangled so as to appear almost human, even given lines in the form of subtitles which it conveys with facial expression, if you will, rather than barking. This dog quickly surpasses all cuteness to become a fully-fledged character that inhabits a dual role as both Oliver’s ersatz son and his sage yet hard-bitten philosophical sounding board. It’s as though Oliver has set up in this dog a dialogue with the facsimile of his childhood self.
Much of Beginners is purportedly autobiographical. Writer/Director Mike Mills (of Thumbsucker fame) did indeed have a father who came out and had a loving relationship in his winter years after his mother’s death. There is no question, even without this soundbite, of the verity and complexity of the propositions and relationships of Beginners. Ewan MacGregor embodies Oliver more than portrays him. It is hard to believe this is the same actor who crawled out of a toilet in Trainspotting and sung twee medleys with an obscenely sparkly Kidman in Moulin Rouge. Those past parts are left behind wholly, replaced by a performance that somehow simultaneously articulates what it is like to live in 2003, to be 38, to be a designer, to be single, to meet someone, and to love your parents and want them to love each other. It is a richly written character who MacGregor seems to know personally, if not be himself.
Whilst this family portrait is certainly not always happy, it is the image of a privileged lifestyle, where success and a certain quiet comfort is enjoyed. There is also a level to which Oliver is living a serene version of the hipster dream, albeit a mature manifestation of it, where all the same ‘cool stuff’ is enjoyed, but for its own sake and in the company of friends rather than for show, meta or irony. As a result this is a highly aesthetic exercise, not in terms of styling, but in the activities Oliver takes part in – contemplative histrionic vandalism, eating tortillas on the curb, driving down the sidewalk, communicating by pen and paper instead of speaking, and playing romantic games that toy with the rules of conversation. These are each artistic methods employed to approach life differently, to force something beautiful or surprising from it where others might simply inhabit the crisps aisle of the supermarket, the colour-co-ordinated baby shower, the plastic booth at the fast food diner. In a sense this is a very art-pragmatic lifestyle, harmonising with many of the central tenets of the French Situationist Internationale, who championed the integration of art into all aspects of life, and the practices of detournemont and derive: drifting out of routine or implementing game-like rules that squeeze unpredictable results from everyday activities.
The danger with Beginners is that it might attract criticism for being overly ‘indie’ or sentimental, especially considering the lack of cataclysmic hardship Oliver undergoes (his woes stem mostly from overthinking things). There is a degree to which ‘white people problem’ and ‘first world problem’ memes might pick up a few pointers here. In it’s defence, this reading is merely a surface one, and I certainly don’t feel as though Beginners lacks authority over its subject or is shying away from darker territories, however easy those accusations are to make. This is a film with a level of authenticity reflective of the kind of lifestyle a writer/director is likely to have, and indeed did have in this case. Beginners doesn’t spoon-feed its audience, and there are abundant connections, touching motifs and deeper material echoing through it for those who relish the rummage.
The duration of the film is divided evenly between the past, when Oliver’s father was alive, and the his present relationship, via both cut scenes and recollection sequences. This is where the strength of the film lies. Whilst it is not structureless, there seems no pattern to the oscillation between past and present which shifts busily, apart from small connections in Oliver’s memory. Yet the schisms are not solely flashbacks either. This makes for a magnificently woven whole in which music, various objects and a series of short slide-show-like vignettes narrated by Oliver make rhythmic reprieves. There are also delicious moments in which Wills seems to make self-evident commentaries on the nature of family simply for the audience; a Freud fancy dress costume, the inclusion of the dog in the idea of marriage, and the simulacra between Hal’s devotional relationship to Andy (Goran Visnjic) and Oliver’s with Anna: the flowers, the dancing, the pillow talk.
It might be true that most young people see their relationships as being simply the romantic connection between themselves and their lover. Beginners invites that we consider them awhile as prospective marriages, or prospective families, as liaisons framed by a constant awareness of how a child would interact with and study the partnership. Whatever conclusions this exercise brings, Beginners always recommends a sizeable dose of play, of riffing on the ordinary until it becomes artful, and taking the failed relationships of others with a pinch of salt.