Beauty is supposed to guarantee a front-row seat, a privileged place at life's party. But Laura (Dina Korzun) may be the exception. Slim and blond and beautiful, Laura barely registers in the world she lives in.
The Russian trophy wife of a megalomaniacal but not unkind Memphis music producer, Alan (Rip Torn), Laura waits obediently in the wings, ready to move alongside him or exit when he indicates.
Laura's surest moments are spent in solitude, grooming herself in the mirror, as if to ensure that her facade of emotional equilibrium is intact, or dressing the 3-year-old son who marks her relationship with Alan in a way that no other vow has sanctified.
From all outside appearances, Laura is empty and cold, but Korzun assures us there is something profound and aching locked inside. Laura turns out to be not a sleeping beauty but a shrewd observer of her world of American comfort and luxury, and her tenuous role in it.
Laura's frozen unhappiness and loneliness is made more profound by the parade of housemaids and baby sitters and musicians who pass through Alan's home. When Alan's adult son arrives for a visit, Laura's serene distance shatters. Michael (Darren Burrows) has some sorrow weighing on his mind, too, including a pregnant wife he may not love. A romance develops, as does the promise of some escape for the two of them.
But the presence of a Russian character must doom any story to uncoil in tragedy. As Laura tells Michael of her seemingly innate despondency, "Maybe this is Russian. To keep going. I think here it is different. Everyone here is so spoiled."
That moment clarifies everything, including the haunting impression that Laura is a woman on autopilot who, like others who have experienced some of the deeper pain life has to offer, has convinced herself that a placid existence may be enough.
Ira Sachs' direction is steady and relatively neutral, allowing Laura to take center stage. Sachs, who co-wrote the insightful script with Michael Rohatyn, seems to recognize the value in using his camera as an attentive observer of Laura's world. The camera is the only one, besides Michael, who appears to take notice of anything beyond Laura's beauty. That scrupulous hold of the camera's vision on Laura's face becomes a way to pull us into Laura's point-of-view while reinforcing our distance from her.
Even moments of happiness are laced with ripples of sadness, like the birthday cake Laura makes for her son, decorated with an angel and carefully dusted with sprinkles. She is as devoted and attentive to her son as she is to her husband, and yet, still alone.
The film suggests a marriage of Robert Altman's early work, with gallivanting but rich character studies, and the penetrating view of marriage and loneliness in Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House.
Co-screenwriter Rohatyn is a musician, and Sachs was born and raised in the Memphis music scene. Their script is infused with the romantic highs and lows of a million country songs. But it's the haunting melody, soaked in longing and agony that words can convey only in small part, that really gets you. Much remains opaque in Forty Shade of Blue, including the nature of the resentment boiling between Alan and Michael, who seethe with disgust for each others' lives.
The film is a product of the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, and there is a certain overworked, overplotted calculation to Forty Shades of Blue that keeps it from feeling entirely naturalistic. But it is Korzun's performance that carries the film. Her clenched shoulders, ballerina poise and distant gaze put her body in one place and her mind somewhere entirely different. One of the few times we get in is when Laura sits at the kitchen table singing the lyrics to a song called "Forty Shades of Blue" that, like much of Sachs and Rohatyn's film, momentarily indicates the torrents of heartache churning beneath.
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