Cultural anthropology in one's own backyard yields skeletons aplenty in "Phyllis and Harold," Cindy Kleine's exhumation of her parents' 59-year marriage.
Cultural anthropology in one’s own backyard yields skeletons aplenty in “Phyllis and Harold,” Cindy Kleine’s exhumation of her parents’ 59-year marriage. Evocatively fleshed out with surprisingly iconic homemovies, passionate love letters and well-chosen pop tunes, Kleine’s homegrown Jewish “Madame Bovary” escapes the navel-gazing boundaries of the personal-diary docu by the sheer force of its evocation of bygone sensuality. As Andrew Jarecki’s “Capturing the Friedmans” amply demonstrated, dredged-up forbidden secrets in a suburban context reps definite box office appeal. This offbeat spin down memory lane, which opened Feb. 19 at Gotham’s Cinema Village, could lure an eclectic following.
Docu reprises the dueling his-and-hers interviews of Kleine’s 1998 short about her parents, “Til Death Do Us Part,” and recasts them in light of a hitherto unrevealed adulterous affair. “All my life I’ve tried to figure out who these people are and what they’re doing together,” Kleine confides directly to the camera, in tight closeup that deliberately underlines her intrusion into the film. At other times, animated cutouts of herself at various ages bop around inside the frame, a distancing device that both acknowledges and denaturalizes the filmmaker’s own stake in the proceedings.
Mostly, though, Kleine allows her parents to speak for themselves, juxtaposing father Harold’s reminiscences of his “golden years” of wedded bliss and rise to success as a Long Island dentist with mother Phyllis’ fecund tale of frustrated desires and mismatched dreams.
The absurdist “Rashomon”-style disparity between the differing accounts is further layered by the distance between past and present. Sitting her septuagenarian parents side by side, the camera panning to frame first one and then the other, Kleine makes them read aloud, to their own increasing incredulity, the outpourings of ardent yearning expressed in gushy love letters they wrote to each other half a century earlier.
Ultimately, however, the film belongs to Phyllis as the holder of the secret that rewrites family history. Her highly romanticized liaison with a married man, beginning before her marriage and lingering in her imagination long after their daily assignations ended, became her brief glimpse into the existence she was born for.
This and other revelations might be consigned to the sensational or merely sociological were it not for Phyllis’ exceptional physicality and the narcissistic, restless sexuality that peeks out from the hundreds of color photographs and homemovie images strewn throughout the docu. Pensively reclining amid long grasses like Rousseau’s lion, dolled up in opulent outfits she designed herself, or posed against exotic backdrops from her travels with Harold, her thirst for something more fulfilling than Long Island suburbia seems equaled only by the poverty of the options she envisions.