Paul Schrader's "Forever Mine" -- one of the best American movies of the year and one of the lushest movies in recent memory -- will not be coming to a theater near you anytime soon. The reason is an ugly object lesson in the pitfalls of how movies get financed and distributed right now. The distribution offers the film received after completion weren't adequate to cover its $18 million budget. When the company that financed the film went under, its assets were taken over by its Dutch insurers. They decided to sell the company's five or six unreleased films as a package to the highest cable bidder.
As the only film that had received an actual distribution offer, "Forever Mine" was too attractive to be separated from the package. So the film, which was shown a few months back at the Telluride Film Festival, is making its debut Sunday at 8 p.m. on the Starz! cable channel. If your cable company offers Starz! get it, even if only for the month, because "Forever Mine" is not a movie that should be allowed to slip through the cracks.
For Schrader "Forever Mine" represents a sort of career peak. It's the most fluid and openly emotional piece of direction he's ever done. Schrader has never been an intuitive director. His first movies tackled hot, dicey topics (union politics in "Blue Collar," porn in "Hardcore," male prostitution in "American Gigolo") only to cool them out with his intellectualized approach. But something started to change with "Patty Hearst" (1988). That movie was as aestheticized as anything he'd made, but there was excitement, as well as fearsome intelligence, in his exploration of the "did she jump or was she pushed" enigma of Patty Hearst. Since then, Schrader has grown from movie to movie, up through his scalding last movie, "Affliction."
The tenderness and sweeping romance at the heart of "Forever Mine" are something new for Schrader. From Angelo Badalamenti's ravishing score to the glowing pastels of John Bailey's cinematography to the sensuality of the lead performances from Joseph Fiennes and Gretchen Mol, "Forever Mine" is awash in the heightened, overwhelming emotion that's the life's blood of movies. It's that most movieish of genres, a film-noir romance, and yet there's nothing ironic or self-conscious about either Schrader's writing or his direction. He seems to feel that irony would dodge emotion, diminish it, apologize for it. So Schrader tells this story as if he were encountering this sort of outsize romanticism for the first time -- and he makes us feel we're encountering it for the first time. "Forever Mine," which moves with the grace of a great soul ballad, offers the pleasure that's unique to the movies and to rock 'n' roll: the sense of being swept up and carried along in something bigger than yourself.
At its most basic, "Forever Mine" is about how the music of romance grows with you, becomes sweeter but also more painful with years. The movie opens in 1987 on a flight to New York. A well-dressed man with a partially disfigured face sits in a first-class cabin. His manner is formal, distant. Something about him -- the expensive clothes, the flashiness of his "associate" in the next seat, the suggestion that, if pushed, he could become dangerous -- says "drug dealer." But the man is so wrapped up in his private thoughts that it's impossible to say for sure.
And then the faint strains of a siren song, Timmy Thomas' "Why Can't We Live Together," come over the soundtrack and the present dissolves before our eyes. The man's pained, remote visage is replaced by his younger self, clean-shaven and smooth-faced, his body language as open and expectant as it will become careful and wary 14 years later. The close confines of the airplane have given way to the sunny vistas of 1973 Miami Beach. You can feel the sun warming your body, the deliberately undulating melody of Thomas' lone hit acting as a balm on your muscles -- and you've moved from a closed-off secret world to one of possibilities.
The young man is Alan (Fiennes), only a cabana boy at a plush beachfront resort, but one who carries his dreams so close to him they're like an invisible cloak. One day, Alan is blessed with a vision, a beautiful blond woman rising from the waves in a white bathing suit. She's Ella (Gretchen Mol), a young honeymooner vacationing with her politician husband Mark (Ray Liotta), and as soon as Alan sees her, he knows that his purpose in life is to be with her.
"Forever Mine" is as simple and as unwavering as that. It's the story of how Alan and Ella fall in love, separate and reunite years later when Alan steps back into Ella's life in another guise. More than that, "Forever Mine" is about the complex tango between purity and corruption, duty and dreams, masks and true identities. The film takes place in both 1973, when Richard Nixon's presidency was beginning to crumble, and in 1987, when the Reagan era was about to segue into the Bush era and a far more insidious (and accepted) corruption than Watergate had been established. Which is to say that the action of "Forever Mine" takes place in a time when rogues rule, a time not conducive to heroic ideals. Alan and Ella are like the lovers standing atop the Berlin Wall in David Bowie's "Heroes," beautiful and foolish enough to proclaim that their love will overcome all obstacles.
But the ruler of the roost here is Ella's husband. Mark's the sort of weaselly small-timer with just enough juice to scotch the lovers' hopes and dreams, whose grandeur he can barely conceive. A fixer who has worked his way up from crooked construction deals to a seat on the city council, Mark bridges the movie's two eras. He seems to have spent the six years between the fall of Nixon and the rise of Reagan biding his time, waiting until the greed for power that motivates him could be brought out in the open. (Jowly and with his hair slicked back from his wavy widow's peak, Liotta even looks a little like Nixon.) A ferrety, volatile actor, Liotta carries his past gangster and thug parts into the role of Mark. He's still playing a criminal, but the kind who has achieved respectability. He might be the runt offspring of the Corleones, a connected pipsqueak who took the family business legit.
Within the conventions of a love story and a film noir, "Forever Mine" manages to paint a fairly complex view of the '80s. Schrader gets at the way the decade blurred political, corporate and criminal life, and posits reckless emotion, embodied by Alan and Ella, as an opposing force. Love stories traditionally put obstacles in the paths of its lovers that become tests they must pass to prove their love. In "Forever Mine" those obstacles are the seductions of the decade itself.
The film's tension derives from the lovers' temptation to give into corruption. Ella has tried to put the passion she felt with Alan out of her mind and settle into the shellacked role of supportive political wife. Alan hasn't come close to forgetting Ella. But there's a danger he'll lose himself on the road he has chosen to reclaim her. Having trusted the advice of his friend Javier (Vincent Laresca) that the way to power and respect is through dealing drugs, Alan has stepped into a new identity as international "banker" Maresca. He reenters Ella's life when her husband, who's about to be indicted for corruption, calls on Maresca to broker a deal with government attorneys. And the stage is set for the characters to live up -- or down -- to their truest selves.
The soul music on the soundtrack (songs like the Timmy Thomas one and Jimmy Ruffin's 1966 hit "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted") functions as something like a statement of principles for Alan and Ella. The longing of the songs, their combination of the ethereal and the earthly, and the way they hold out the constant possibility of loss waft through the film like the unspoken vows Alan and Ella have made to each other.
The love scenes between Alan and Ella are some of the most sensual in recent movies. Schrader establishes a humid, lazily seductive atmosphere as the lovers walk in the moonlight or sway to music in a beachside bar. And there's a sustained sense of erotic discovery between the two leads. In bed as well as out, Fiennes and Mol carry a bond of intimacy that makes the air between them ripple. They're so tuned into each other that it's as if their hearts are transmitting invisible telegrams. These two have the privilege of beauty on their side, but they've got talent and charisma, too. We yield to them the way we've always yielded to the most attractive movie lovers, and because the corruption that surrounds them is palpable as well as easy, Schrader makes us feel that something's at stake in their love.
The cruel irony of Mol's career is that she was touted as the next big star, appearing on the cover of Vanity Fair before any of her movies had been released, only to have those movies flop. Now, in a crueler irony, she's given a performance that has the potential to make her a star but is likely to go unseen. Ella is the movie's crucial role, the character torn between the wild romanticism and cold practicality represented by the two male characters, and Mol is superb. She combines delicacy with pragmatism, the desire to let herself fall completely in love with the fear of all she stands to lose. She makes you understand the need for security that attracts Ella to Mark, but also the knowledge that she has sold herself short. In one of the loveliest scenes, Ella reads "Madame Bovary" to a group of senior citizens and Mol transforms it into Ella's story. Mol could easily have settled for being the next glamorous movie blond, but she does something much tougher, putting tremulous flesh on the bones of that familiar icon.
Joseph Fiennes has often been written about as if he were the matinee idol of his family while his brother Ralph were the serious actor. There's an element of truth in that, and it's why Joseph is so much more pleasurable to watch. He's got some fire in him, while his brother displays ever more of a penchant for washed-out masochism. Fiennes smoldered effectively in "Shakespeare in Love." Here, he's doing something far subtler and, finally, far more romantic.
Alan lives so far inside his code of romantic valor, his belief that you live or die by love, that he's a little removed from ordinary life. At one point he asks Ella, "Why do birds sing so gay?" -- quoting Frankie Lymon almost unconsciously, as if song lyrics were the same thing as everyday speech. But he doesn't come off as crazy or scary. The movies teach us to trust beauty and Schrader and his production team have surrounded him with the sort of beauty -- the fairy-tale palace look of the hotel where he works, the silky perfection of the songs issuing from the radio, the stunning sight of Ella rising from the sea -- that makes Alan's ardor seem like a natural response to the world around him.
The two parts of Fiennes' performance work beautifully. As Alan, he foreshadows the determination he'll show as Maresca, and as Maresca, he harks back to the vulnerability of Alan. Fiennes is a genuine romantic hero (and not a kook) because whether he's Alan the cabana boy or Maresca the banker, he has the dedication of a knight sworn to fidelity to his own true love.
It's a measure of the level Paul Schrader is working at in "Forever Mine" that he stirs up that sort of feeling without parodying it or making it seem like a mere movie conceit. He's genuinely trying to give himself over to the sweeping emotion that has always been particular to the movies -- those heightened moments, like the love scenes between Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in "A Place in the Sun" -- in a way that he hasn't before. Fiennes' performance is his guiding light. Schrader allows himself to be seduced by Alan as much as Ella is. At the beginning, he's watching Alan from the outside, fascinated that anyone could be so steadfast. By the end he has made the same leap of faith as Ella. Like his lovers, he has surrendered to the music.