HBO follows up its highly successful 1996 abortion-themed anthology, “If These Walls Could Talk,” with a winning trilogy of short films under the same umbrella moniker, this time about the changing lesbian experience in America. Three pieces are nicely varied in tone and theme, but film as a whole suffers from a problem that is also its greatest strength: The first installment is so good that the others — fine in their own right — pale in comparison. Despite all the star power in front of the camera, the shining light here is writer-director Jane Anderson.
Anderson’s “1961,” begins with an opening sequence in a movie theater showing the William Wyler-Lillian Hellman film “The Children’s Hour.” The contrast between the overwrought nature of the on-screen melodrama and the dignified reserve of lesbian couple Edith (Vanessa Redgrave) and Abby (Marian Seldes) immediately creates a sense of the deep, comfortable love that exists between the two retired schoolteachers who’ve been together for decades. Within just a few minutes, Anderson sets up the foundation for what quickly becomes a story of loss, as Abby dies following an accident in their backyard.
With exquisite craftsmanship, Anderson creates scenes where characters can be cruel even while doing their very best to be kind. Each of the three family members relates to Edith on a different emotional plane, and their own self-absorbed concerns are understandable if not sympathetic.
An austere yet heartbreaking turn by Redgrave, perfect supporting performances and some exceedingly simple and poignant visual storytelling from Anderson make this piece as resonant as television gets.
Second segment, “1972,” can’t match the simple elegance of its predecessor, but after a contrived beginning, the film becomes a provocative and, in some ways, challenging piece. Linda (Michelle Williams) lives with a group of other lesbian feminists.
After an unpleasant confrontation with the feminist college organization, Linda et al. stop for a drink at a gay bar, where they look down on the butch-femme couples they see there, considering the women dressed as men to be participating in their own oppression.
But Linda finds herself charmed by butch Amy (Chloe Sevigny), who wears a tie, drives a motorcycle, and acts the true gentleman. As she finds herself falling in love, Linda must confront her own prejudices, as well as those of her close-knit friends and political allies.
Pic includes a love scene that’s genuinely steamy, and Sevigny is wonderfully convincing in a performance that’s complementary to her role in “Boys Don’t Cry.” Writer Sylvia Sichel and director Martha Coolidge hammer home some of the more obvious points and ignore more subtle ones, but set-up is certainly compelling enough to give the film weight.
Made-for concludes with “2000,” written and directed by Anne Heche, starring her real-life partner Ellen DeGeneres and Sharon Stone as a contemporary couple trying to have a baby. Not especially ambitious or reflective, breezy pic does have an easygoing charm and some strong comic beats as the lovers seek the appropriate Dad on the Internet and deal with the practicalities of impregnation.
There aren’t really any dramatic choices made on screen here, and while it’s a fine debut effort for Heche, it’s not a mature work — more just a sweet depiction of a loving couple than a story in itself. Point is made, however, that this couple is an awful lot like everybody else in basic human desires, and this thematic element — along with the house where each piece takes place — unifies the three films.
Interstices between the segments are nicely done, and tech credits are excellent.