Chris & Don: A Love Story

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AFI Fest

The lives of British writer Christopher Isherwood and American portrait artist Don Bachardy and the love they shared over three decades give any documentarian a rich and wonderful gift.

Even a klutz could hardly make a bad movie about these compelling figures. Thankfully though, Guido Santi and Tina Mascara are superb filmmakers, fully alive in their terrific film "Chris & Don: A Love Story" to all the undercurrents of art, social class, sexual orientation, challenging relationships and, most especially, the touching love story at the heart of their film. The docu is a natural for festivals, but strong enough to have impact in art-house venues in North America and Europe.

The film deploys a number of techniques to relate the story and every one works. This includes time spent over three years with the surviving partner, Bachardy, as he continues to paint, bicycles all over Santa Monica and reminiscences about his dear companion.

There also are interviews with friends and colleagues, amazing home movies shot by the lovers, animation sequences, re-enacted scenes with actors posing as key characters -- a thing that usually misfires but in this case does not -- and readings from Isherwood's diaries by Michael York.

The two met on a Santa Monica beach, in a section frequented by gays, in 1953. Isherwood came to the U.S. in 1939, having already written his novel "Mr. Norris Changes Trains" and short story collection "Goodbye to Berlin" -- the inspiration for the play "I Am a Camera" and subsequent stage and film musical "Cabaret." He was 49. Bachardy, who was with his older brother Ted, was 18.

Despite a 30-year age difference and a few affairs with others and periods of separation in the early 1960s, the two shared a love and a friendship that lasted until Isherwood died in 1986. Pictures and home movies show a handsome middle-age man, who can't help smiling in the company of such a beautiful, well-built boy. The boy, too, beams at the camera, his joy unmistakable. As they grow older, the connection between the men grows stronger in each photograph.

There obviously was a mentoring aspect to their relationship: Chris became the father he could not otherwise be, taking the youth to Europe, introducing him to such friends as Aldous Huxley, Igor Stravinsky, Tennessee Williams and Montgomery Clift -- many of whom would later pose for Don the artist -- and encouraging and supporting his study of art.

Their age difference meant nothing to them but a lot to others. Don would feel the dismissiveness of Chris' famous friends. He thought about leaving the relationship, to reclaim his independence and to experience the kind of sexual freedom Chris enjoyed when he roamed Berlin in the '30s in search of handsome boys.

In the end, their love proved too strong for any permanent separation. As one friend, director John Boorman, notes, Don unwittingly mimicking his mentor's English speech patterns and mannerisms.

The most touching sequences revolve around the death of Isherwood. In his final six months, Don painted Chris every day, so that his death was "something we were doing together." The drawings often catch the agonies of a dying man but with an aching tenderness. When Chris finally expired, Don spent the day drawing his lover's corpse. He says he did so because he could imagine his mentor urging him on, saying "That's what an artist would do." Don takes a breath and adds: "And that's what an artist did do."

CHRIS & DON: A LOVE STORY
Asphalt Stars Prods.
Credits:
Director-editors: Guido Santi, Tina Mascara
Producers: Julia Scott, Tina Mascara, Guido Santi, James White
Executive producer: Andrew Herwitz
Narrator of Isherwood's diaries: Michael York
Director of photography: Ralph Q. Smith
Production designer: Francisco Stohr
Music: Miriam Cutler
Animation: Katrina Swanger, Kristina Swanger
Running time -- 91 minutes
No MPAA rating
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