In life and in art, the trophy wife is a character hungrily regarded but just as brusquely dismissed. In the movies, she's often a flat, shrill foil to a suffering husband; on awards shows, she's blankly beautiful, draped on her husband's arm and wearing little more than a vacant smile. The winner of this year's Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Forty Shades of Blue, admirably treats this woman as deserving of examination. Why is she here, and how does she feel about herself?
Inspired by his own upbringing and the films of Ken Loach and John Cassavetes, director Ira Sachs fashions a sensitive and subtle film about the tension between aggressive self-expression and quiet desperation. Dina Korzun plays Laura, who's actually the live-in trophy girlfriend of Alan James, a Memphis soul-music impresario played by Rip Torn. Alan's used to getting his way, and Laura's used to suppressing her will. That balance becomes upset when Alan's estranged son (Darren Burrows) comes to stay and ponder a possible divorce from his pregnant wife.
Korzun's absorbing performance powers the dollhouse drama. A langorous Russian accent signals Laura's outsider status. Initially too demure and deferential to express an opinion (What do you think? "I don't know." What are you thinking about? "Nothing."), Laura insists, "I don't have the right to complain," even when Alan sleeps around. Her creative impulses remain the private province of the unhappy couple—Alan praises her musical invention, but jealously hides it from view (when Laura finally sings, it's an interior monologue).
Burrows—in the open-ended role of the liminal romantic—convincingly relocates half a world away from his signature role in Northern Exposure, and Torn proves ideal for the role of a blustery, mercurial music producer. "A beautiful, wonderful woman should always be in a beautiful state, right?" asks Alan. With photography as placidly beautiful as his lead, Sachs keeps the film decidedly minimalist—the opening sequence feels stolen, with the leading lady blending into the other passers-by. Cemented by an authentic portrayal of Sachs' lived-in Memphis, Forty Shades of Blue has the plaintive, lyrical feel of a classic Southern short-story.
[For Groucho's interview with director Ira Sachs, click here.]