There’s nothing more frustrating as a cinephile than a film with great ideas that don’t seem to coalesce in execution, where you can see all the pieces of a clever, engaging, thoughtful story, yet, for some reason, in completion, the lack of cohesion runs rampant. Originally released as Beautiful Darkness, written by Jennifer Schuur (Hannibal) and co-directed by first-time feature directors Monty Whitebloom and Andy Delaney, Love Is Blind is a subversive dramedy fairytale in which the notion that we’re only ready to find love when we’re at peace with ourselves is taken to an extreme. It’s one thing to have a film centered on multiple characters whose journeys intersect in a manner which creates incidental moments of magic. It’s another, however, when the film suggests a central figure when the actuality is another. This leads to situations which, only through the lens of romance, are protected from being uncomfortably creepy.
Ten years ago, Carolyn Kraft (Chloë Sevigny) died, leaving behind her daughter Bessie (Shannon Tarbet) and husband Murray Kraft (Matthew Broderick). This would be hard on anyone, but when you add in Murray’s diagnosis of Parkinson’s, things become a little tougher. This is the reason Bessie never left the small New York town she calls home when her friends did and why she always looks after her father. She loves him, but, mostly, she doesn’t want him to be alone as his illness progresses. Except Murray’s not alone. Carolyn never died. She just ceased to exist to Bessie via a condition referred to as selective perception. After years of therapy, her psychiatrist (Benjamin Walker) decides to try something new when he learns that Bessie can’t see the demolitionist (Aidan Turner) working on the building next to his office. What unfolds offers the first chance Bessie’s had in years to feel less alone.
There’s this idea with romance that gets indoctrinated at a very early age. It’s the idea that love conquers all, that, as long as your intentions are pure, any actions you take are noble, that love is enough to cure what ails. This, of course, is largely hokum used to sell Disney movies and Valentine’s Day cards. The reality is far more difficult as love is not something that just stays, unaffected by time or outside influence. Love is work. Constant, persistent, daily work. There’s nothing wrong with the idea of romantic love, as long as the ideals which make it dangerous don’t override the truth which is that love happens between people, not icons. People are fallible, are capable of great joy, as well as great pain. Love Is Blind is best described as a dramedy for the way it evokes the bittersweetness of love by utilizing romantic tropes amid a grounded narrative. One of the various threads in the film focuses on the marriage of Murray and Carolyn. As seen through the memories of various characters, it’s one with affection and a kind of suffering. The reason why is explained through the course of the and it does wonders in helping reaffirm the idea of love as a complicated machine. In contrast, Bessie and the demolitionist, named Russell, have their conflict in whether Bessie can see him. Otherwise, theirs seems to be a love unburdened by reality. This is where Love begins to lose its strength.
Perception is something that Love plays with from the start. It’s a key component of the narrative, as well as the visual and auditory elements. In the opening, the audience is introduced, via voiceover, to Russell before they know his name. Instead, we hear his voice, while we see Bessie. As the voiceover continues, the words “Look Away” flash intermittently with varying red/green backgrounds and fonts. The red and green are near constant colors present throughout the film, an obvious reference to the cones within the eye. The “Look Away,” however, is more confusing. As a directive or a warning, it is unclear. This may seem like a digression, but it tracks with the notion that the film is a little unsure of what story it’s telling. If things are a matter of perspective, then the perspective we, the audience, are given matters the most. In this regard, we’re given the sights of Bessie and the voice of Russell. As a twist on narrative control, it’s thematically appropriate and clever. However, that also means that the audience is never privy to Bessie’s inner conflicts, only Russell’s. His story involves a deep desire to disappear, one the audience comes to know from his slow developing friendship with Bessie’s therapist, Farmer, and a desire made real via Bessie. This instills a strong curiosity about her, which turns into something particularly unsettling, given Bessie’s inability to see, hear, or otherwise sense his presence, just like with her mother. So when the film tries to show Russell seeking connection, a sign of a desire to live, this means he follows Bessie to her property, goes into her house as she showers, and lays with her in her treehouse. As designed by Schuur and presented by Whitebloom and Delaney, Love is presented as a hyper-real fairytale where an awakening will enable both Bessie and Russell to find love and, therefore, happiness, except the manner in which they present Russell comes across as unsettling, especially with his suicidal tendencies. The perception of Russell’s actions and intent are clouded by the film’s desire to tell a love story. In doing so, Bessie becomes a player in the story without any agency, subjected to the manipulations of those around her. So, if love is blind and there’s beauty in darkness, what exactly are we supposed to look away from?
Despite the messiness of the narrative, there’s incredible thought by Whitebloom and Delaney to create Schuur’s story. The visual design is particularly notable for its consistency throughout. It’s use of black and white in several scenes not only serves as wonderful signal to the audience that we’re looking at memories, but they also provide a clear demarcation between the somewhat fantastical story we’re watching versus the more concrete reality. Working in clear harmony, the costume design by Olivia Mori (Infinity Baby) and production design by Javiera Varas (Marjorie Prime) continue the fairytale elements of the story with vibrant colors in every set that also enhance some of the more mystical aspects of the visual narrative. There’s a strong focus on red and green, no doubt a means of creating a correlation to the cones in the eye, which also serve as a lovely contrast against whites, grays, and other neutral tones worn predominately by Murray and Carolyn. They see the world as it is versus Bessie who sees the world as she wants it. It’s a lovely visual reminder of the characters’ psyches.
Additionally, the performances by Tarbet, Turner, and Broderick are all charming. Broderick plays the doddering father who’s strong in heart. In turn, he offers the emotional foundation Love builds off of. Turner has the difficult job of making Russell, an emotionally broken man, charming and lovely. He’s a White Knight, to be sure, which makes him endearing at the start, a necessary aspect considering Russell’s behavior later. Turner manages to make Russell not redemptive, but easily forgivable, with perception being the key difference between romance and horror. Tarbet has the most do in Love as both a central figure and love interest. To describe Bessie as anything else would be disingenuous, and this is an aspect which is incredibly frustrating. The film presents Bessie as someone to be fixed or saved and it’s not until the third act that her wants and needs are explored. Tarbet imbues Bessie with depth and complexity where the narrative seems less inclined. Again, the argument could be made that it’s a matter of perception, except the film seems intent on circling Bessie, using her as a means to interlock characters and move journeys than in giving her one of her own. Thankfully there’s Sevigny, who has the least to do of any, yet is able to portray the pain of several compounding losses without succumbing to operatics. Particularly as the audience comes to learn the backstory between Carolyn and Bessie, the manner in which Sevigny portrays her takes on multiple levels. It is a performance both lovely and painful to observe.
Love Is Blind is indeed the quirky romantic drama that the advertising suggests. There’s an awkward therapist, a broken man, and a lovely, slightly dissociated girl, which, when mixed with the slightly off-kilter, almost punk rock vibe of direction and editing, encourages the notion that not all things are as they appear. It all makes for an incredibly interesting and certainly original idea. In execution, however, it just doesn’t fall into place in a manner befitting a clear and cohesive narrative. It’s not that tales of romance require some measure of logic or reason. It’s that Love Is Blind can’t decide if it’s telling Russell’s tale of healing or Bessie’s tale of self-actualization. Without that clear focus, the heading of the film is just as opaque. At least, that’s one way to perceive it.
In theaters, on VOD, and digital November 8th, 2019.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.