Thursday, October 14, 2021

Garth Maxwell | When Love Comes

 youthful and mid-life angst

by Douglas Messerli

Garth Maxwell, Rex Pilgrim, and Peter Wells (screenplay), Garth Maxwell (director) When Love Comes / 1998

New Zealand director Garth Maxwell, working with the noted Kiwi director Stewart Main as his assistant, creates in When Loves Comes (1998) a film about three pairs of lost lovers, younger and older, gay, lesbian, and heterosexual who all seem displaced in their lives and, particularly for the figures of a slightly older generation, in danger of losing the somewhat enchanted lives they had thought they had created for themselves.

      That is particularly true for the most sane and symbolic magnet, Stephen (Simon Prast) of these somewhat lost souls—it is in his apartment and later seaside home that they all gather to regain their sanity after facing the chaos of the mostly music-and-bar scenes in which they daily participate—a man who, despite his own aging and increasing despair for losing what he has thought to be a rather magical life, now sardonically and sometimes rather campily copes with a  failing relationship with a young hunky, curly blond-haired lover, Mark (Dean O'Gorman) who evidently began as Stephen’s paid prostitute, now plagued with heaving drinking, doping, lack of purpose, and a violent streak due to self-hate.

     Stephen might almost be seen as coping rather well despite all those problems were it not that his very best friend and a might-have-been-lover—if “only he hadn’t been gay and she of the wrong gender”— Katie Keen (Rena Owen), who facing the dead-end of her singing career and the failure of her own relationship with her US manager Eddie (Simon Westaway) has decided to leave California to return home to Auckland. If Stephen has seemingly lived a gifted life, Katie, as he attempts to explain to his generational illiterate friend Mark, reached the heights as a noted, top-of-the-chart pop singer both in New Zealand and temporarily in the US, but is now playing the kind of longue bars where, as she puts it, she performs as a figure who has lost her voice to a body that makes her appear to be a kind of drag queen. She’s not only sad and disappointed with life, but, as she tells us in a late-film dramatic monologue, has lost the love of the man she has come to depend upon as well as losing the baby he has unknowingly provided her as a last hope that she might open herself up to a splendid later chapter in life.

         If she, like Stephen, is nonetheless fairly good at sardonicism as a tool of survival, she is also truly at the edge and in need of one of those long, deep looks into the mirror of the future if she intends to survive her forties. Stephen, despite his own problems, is pretty good at bucking her up, but a bit like Mark, she too is now floating through her days, herself pulling away from those her care most about her to instead let herself be pulled into the utter chaos of the song lyricist Mark and his lesbian friends, Fig (Nancy Brunning) and Sally (Sophia Hawthorne), who Time Out describes as “riot grrrl bandmates...tousle-haired muppets, full of carefree insouciance” of whom Stephen Holden of The New York Times adds are “wildly in love with each other,” serving “as the movie’s cheeky Greek chorus, introducing the story and commenting on the action.” The trouble is that even they don’t quite know how to explain what they are encountering in her and Stephen, taking her on at moment as a backup singer and the next as a would-be manager without hardly being able to explain the events going on about them. As Sally proclaims after hearing Katie’s late-film revelation, “I’m too young for all of this.”

       They’re also both simply too very happy for the soap-opera-like muddle the movie keeps trying to involve them and us in. In fact, the real problem is perhaps that none of the characters is as bad off as they imagine themselves to be, each of them having despite the mess they’ve made of their lives, a fairly good hold of who they are and who they might like to be, as well as, most importantly, having someone to love them if they’d simply open their eyes, and like the two girls, jump into bed with one another. 

      Indeed, if the movie had provided what Katie and Stephen were seeking, a good quiet weekend at the beach, they might have brought things a bit more quickly under control; but then Maxwell’s whole point is that the only way to really solve your problem is get everyone, young and old, together for a kind of old fashioned beach bonfire around which everyone, including Katie’s ex-lover Eddie who flies in from California to tell Katie how much he loves her, gets a chance to play out their own melodramatic fears before taking a chance on love.

       For a while, it seems that the most caring, least self-pitying of the group, Stephen, will ironically be the only one left empty-handed, but even his lost boy, after having hitch-hiked half- way back to Auckland, returns for a much-needed late night kiss. And everything turns out to be just swell! 

      If we feel somewhat cheated by all the tears and fireworks we had to suffer through for what was apparently only a little of youthful and mid-life angst, we forgive the film’s creators simply because of the beautiful views of the New Zealand seashore and sunset and the actors’ fairly good performances. But we still wish, given so much potentiality, that the film had provided us the more of what it seemingly argued for: a truly adult film, with both younger and older viewpoints, which might have awarded us with deeper insights and far less simplistic solutions if it had only gone with its instincts of taking the wrong direction more often, bringing us into the finer mess it promised.

Los Angeles, October 13, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (October 2021).


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