Beginners : The History of Sadness
Updated: Sep 24
Writer/Director Mike Mills has received some Oscar buzz for his 2016 film, 20th Century Women, so as February draws to a close, I decided to re-watch his 2011 film, Beginners. Mills' work as a graphic designer shows up in this semi-autobiographical film. He uses images, like flashcards, to evoke and create the various timeframes for his story: the year 2003, the year 1955. Within the first five minutes of the movie you "know" the story: Oliver, played by Ewan McGregor, portrays Mills himself. Hal, played phenomenally by Christopher Plummer, is his father. After 44 years of marriage, Hal's wife dies from cancer, and he announces to Oliver that he is gay, saying, "I don't want to be theoretically gay, I want to do something about it." Five years after coming out, embracing a new lifestyle and growing closer with Oliver, Hal himself succumbs to cancer and passes away. In the film's opening sequence, we watch as Oliver, having inherited his father's dog, Arthur, a scruffy Jack Russell terrier, gives him a tour of his new home. Speaking to Arthur in the current year 2003, serves as a way to speak to us, the audience. Occasionally Arthur speaks back to Oliver through limited subtitles. Throughout the film, Mills (and thus Oliver), vacillates between present-day 2003, (post Hal's death), the five year period after Hal came out, and memories of his mother (played by Mary Page Keller) during his childhood.
These flashes of memory - cut between scenes of Oliver trying to navigate his life post parents - influence and shape his current actions and emotional responses. As a saddened Oliver gets dragged to a costume party by friends complete with Arthur in tow, (he won't be left behind), we watch him meet Anna, a french actress played by Melanie Laurent. Oliver, dressed as Sigmund Freud hides behind the persona, and yet is able to connect with party guests who lay on the couch next to him for a "therapy session." Anna, silent with laryngitis, uses a notepad to communicate with him asking, "Why are you at a party if you're sad?" When asked how she knew, (he thought he was hiding it so well) Anna replies by drawing a doodle of his eyes. That's it. Our characters have made a connection and Oliver, (and Mills) cuts back to memories of his parents: a montage of chaste kisses each night when his father returns home from work over the years. This is contrasted by a memory of his father exuberantly calling Oliver after a late night outing to a gay bar, asking about "House music." These memories both temper and embolden present-day Oliver to reach out and make a connection with Anna. He asks her to dance, and later for her phone number. She calls almost immediately and the evening continues, flashing to a more loving montage of Hal receiving kisses and embraces from his new boyfriend, Andy (an awkward and heartfelt performance by Goran Visnjic).
These new interactions - the highs and uncertainty of Oliver's new love story with Anna - are inter-spliced with scenes of Oliver and Hal, father and son, dealing with Hal's diagnosis of cancer after he comes out. The reality of measuring out Hal's pills and writing up a schedule of doctor's appointments falls to Oliver, while Andy continues to visit Hal to cheer him up, often being very silly. Hal explains to Oliver, "I like Andy because he isn't like me. He's fun." This could easily be the same case for Oliver and Anna. He is drawn to her in a time when he is mourning the loss of his parents. Anna explains that a career in acting and travel often makes it easy for her to leave people, and to end up alone. Oliver verbalizes that, "You can stay in the same place and still find ways to leave people." He could be talking about Hal or his own past relationships which he draws in a series of doodles like mugshots at his graphic design job. His relationships with women are often transposed against Oliver's own memories of his childhood spent with his mother. They are a team up against a father that worked long hours at an art museum and showed little physical affection toward either of them. In Oliver's memories, his mother often acts out in small ways, being eccentric or silly when they visit the museum, pretending to fire an imaginary gun at Oliver and demanding a better performance of his death. In these small ways, she rebels against her compliant marriage of 44 years to a gay man.
Mills uses the technique of photos or images throughout the film at various points. He shows photos and images of 1938, the year his 13 year old father realized he was gay, and his Jewish mother realized she was an outcast and needed to leave Germany. When his parents later married in 1955, they "turned in their gay badge and Jewish badge," and married each other to conform to American life in California in the 50's. While the memories of their marriage seem stark to Oliver, the flashbacks of his own time with Hal post coming out are a warm contrast. There is true tenderness in the scenes between them, Oliver reading to his father in the hospital, or overseeing him take his medication, even in times of obvious frustration and trepidation, like when Hal asks if Oliver ever knew his father was gay:
Hal: "Did you know about me?"
Oliver: "I just thought you weren't in love."
Once 2003 Oliver realizes his time with Anna is short, - she is only in LA for a month - he takes a chance and asks her to move in for the rest of her stay. When giving her much the same tour of his home he initially gave to Arthur the dog, he finally reaches the bedroom and pulls open two drawers he has emptied for her. This small act brings Anna to tears. But days later she is still living out of her suitcase and the silent pauses between the two lovers have lengthened. Without hearing their actual conversation, we watch their breakup unfold. "I don't think this is what I'm supposed to feel like," Oliver finally says before Anna leaves to go back to NY. This ending is juxtaposed with another finale. We are finally faced with Oliver's memories of Hal's end of life: finishing his cancer treatments, putting a hospital bed in his home, Andy moving in, and finally Hal's death. The intense emotion of this sequence is then cut short by Mill's use again of a flashcard montage showing the nitty gritty of post mortem arrangements: death certificates, cremation, forwarding mail, canceling credit cards. 2003 Oliver brings Arthur to stay with friends and then finally to Andy, the only other person that prevents Arthur from howling and crying when Oliver leaves, so that he can go to NY and attempt to win back Anna. But once he arrives, Oliver calls her, learning that she is actually still in LA. She never left. Using a hidden key, he tours her NY apt while she speaks to him from California, asking, "Why do you leave everyone? Why did you let me go?" Oliver is finally honest, stating, "Maybe because I don't really believe that it's gonna work. So I make sure that it doesn't work." Those flashbacks of his parents have stayed with Oliver, and the audience, throughout the film. But little by little, the latter memories of Hal in his 70's: openly gay, joining groups, making new friends, dating Andy, and finally being intimate with his son, have helped change both Oliver's outlook and our own on love.
When Oliver returns to pick up Arthur from Andy's house, Andy asks if it is is because he is gay that Oliver never called or came to see him after Hal died. "No," Oliver replies, "It's because my father loved you so much." They finally hug.
When the film ends we see Anna return to Oliver's house. He shows her a photo of Hal, along with a handwritten personal ad he submitted to meet gay men at the age of 78. "He didn't give up," Anna states. That, more than anything, seems to be the point of Mike Mills' film.
We are not given a tightly wrapped up story by the end of the film. Our lovers do not know what happens next. But that's not the point. We are given the love and memories of both his parents to help guide him, along with a glimpse of connection and hope for Oliver. He is a beginner after all.
Besides watching movies, Diana likes the great outdoors, drawing and reading comics, and just generally rocking out. She has a BA in English Literature and is an art school drop out. IG: @dldimuro