There is a moment in Azazel Jacobs’ “The Lovers” (read our review of the movie, which opens in limited release today) that feels almost shockingly real. And it’s a small one that almost anyone watching the movie may have experienced in their own lives.
The film centers on a long-married couple, Mary (Debra Winger) and Michael (Tracy Letts), who are each having an affair with someone else as their union teeters on divorce. Out of the blue Mary finds Michael’s other lover (Melora Walters) confronting her in public because she believes Mary is having an affair with Michael, her actual husband (and she’s not wrong). Mary is taken aback in the moment, like anyone would be, and can’t decide whether or not to go home where Michael and her adult son Joel (Tyler Ross) are waiting. She drives her car up the street towards their home and turns around heading back down the hill – and then turns around heading back up. The entire shot is less than thirty seconds, but it sticks with you because it feels so familiar. That sense of indecision is palatable.
Speaking to Winger earlier this week the two-time Oscar nominee immediately knew what I was referring to when asked about it. And there was a specific reason why.
“That happened six months later. That came as a result of Azazel and I continuing our collaboration after the first cut,” Winger says revealing the unusual additional filming that took place for an indie. “I think it was very clear to us. I was supposed to do a scene where I just pull up to the house and it’s dark. And I thought, ‘Where has she been?’ And he agreed that we were missing something. He came up with that great circle with the high shot because it is a moment where you don’t know what to do. You want to sit with it. And I think it wasn’t a crying for her marriage. It wasn’t a sadness about that. It’s herself. She finally looks at herself. It’s easy to look at the other person. It was a collaboration between Azael and myself about ‘How self-revelatory can that moment be?’ She has that moment about herself and looking at herself because when we see ourselves its always painful. It’s a moment that she has to take care of her son with some honesty. So, she starts to start of rehearse that. A wonderful call on Azazel’s part.”
Moments like those are one reason the categorization of “The Lovers” as a romantic farce seems off to some. There are certainly moments of comedy, but for the most part, it feels like a realistic if not romantic drama. Winger admits that until she saw it she wasn’t aware it was comedic either.
“I think it’s a mystery because stories about love are mysteries, but I didn’t know we would be sitting in the back of audiences while they are laughing,” Winger says. “I think I look back and I forget I’ve had that sensation before and it always works to my benefit. In other words, the people who you’re usually laughing at don’t know that they are funny. That’s part of the same thing as what I find sexy are not people who think they are sexy.”
Mary and Michael have been married for twenty-five years, and when they are first introduced in the film they seem content to find a way to end their union and move on with their respective new lovers. Something changes when they awake one morning and, surprisingly, a long-dormant spark is relit. It’s a very human and grounded reaction to love, lust, and relationships – something their son simply can’t fathom, but Winger has a very philosophical view on it.
“I think change is always difficult even though our universe is informed by it,” Winger remarks. “Nothing can really exist in our universe that doesn’t change and transform. Including the universe itself. Of course, love can’t be static. But we get into these relationships let alone and the institution of marriage and we just want to freeze it. ‘Oh, this is good. Keep it this way.’ It doesn’t make any sense but it’s sort of fear-based human nature. So, once you get out of the fear and I think what happens to Marion in the story is they wake up and it kind of scares them. They wake up literally facing each other and if [you do that] you might take a look.”
She adds, observing, “We often fall in love with people we never plan on having sex with. And in a marriage that’s usually an aspect that’s pretty strong. And it’s pretty comfortable to have somebody that you feel less and less as the years go on that you have to hide from.”
Whether this newfound fire keeps Mary and Michael together is for the movie to explore, but one of the other wonderfully progressive aspects of the movie is the former’s relationship with a relatively younger man, Robert (Aiden Gillen). Not only does Winger not see it as a big deal, but she thinks it was unintentional (something we doubt).
“I don’t think it was something anyone leaned on or that Azazel thought up on purpose. He was really determined and I think successfully so about exploring all these different facets of where we find love,” Winger says. “And sometimes your needs are fulfilled by someone has lived some more life and sometimes your needs are fulfilled by someone who lived a little less. (Laughs.) I think when that comes together nobody is looking at it that way. They are just looking at it as the purity of the spark they feel.”
For those looking for more of the legendary actress she’ll soon reprise her role as Maggie in the second season of Netflix’s “The Ranch.”
“The Lovers” is now playing in NY and LA.