Everyday tensions build up beautifully in Loving (1970). And yet the way they flow, one doesn’t feel pushed to overstate their significance. There’s no grotesque overflow of mishaps in the life of Brooks Wilson, the philandering New York graphic designer played by George Segal. His middle-age crisis doesn’t usher a cosmic rupture of the sort Charlie Kaufman will convey in Synecdoche, New York (2008), a movie that Loving somewhat resembles.
Since we learn early on that Brooks has promised his mistress to inform his wife about his affair, he’s like a walking time bomb for us. There’s not scene where Segal wouldn’t hint at his character’s back-burner operating full-tilt. He watches his wife (Eva Marie Saint, in a performance to match Segal’s), his kids and his house, and all the time one can hear him asking: is it worth to jeopardize all this…?
Brooks’ sexual longing (suggested, in the movie’s single instance of literal-mindedness, by “imaginary” inserts of him having sex with his lover) is palpable throughout. The force pulling him towards adultery is sweetly, yet painfully insistent. At the same time he starts to see his family as an imperiled unit – everyday bickering and mess are annoying, but not annoying enough for Brooks to make the incision it would take to move on to something new.
The way Segal plays Brooks, he’s both meek, mean, level-headed and volatile. This may be one of the towering (yet still virtually unsung) male performances in American movies. Brooks’ final act of adultery, made into cruelly insensitive sexual slapstick by a device I won’t reveal here, is the high-point of the film. Segal gives in to temptation from the inside of his character: he’s not telegraphing anything.
Irving Kershner’s sense of textural richness seems all-encompassing. There’s not a scene in the movie that could be called perfunctory, or one that would give the impression of being too glib or hasty (and yet Loving clocks in at a neat 89 minutes!). Gordon Willis’ cinematography gives a charge to sets that would otherwise feel commonplace (although I felt that there were a couple of shots in which he overdid his Hey-look-I’m-Rembrandt shadowy self).
This is by far the best movie I’ve seen in a long time. The only director working nowadays that shows a talent similar to Kershner’s is, to my mind, James Gray. I can’t wait to see some more of Kershner’s early stuff – too bad there’s so little of it available on DVD…