Forty Shades of Blue

"Forty Shades of Blue" is a muted but nicely observed study of a Russian woman's gradual estrangement from her domineering Memphis music-legend husband. This long-awaited second feature from Ira Sachs is bound to generate solid critical support, assuring a busy spin on the international fest circuit and sales in numerous territories.

A naturalistic drama in which naturalism prevails at the expense of some needed drama, “Forty Shades of Blue” is a muted but nicely observed study of a Russian woman’s gradual estrangement from her domineering Memphis music-legend husband. This long-awaited second feature from Ira Sachs, whose “The Delta” was a 1997 Sundance favorite, is bound to generate solid critical support in certain quarters, assuring a busy spin on the international fest circuit and sales in numerous territories. But aside from an excellent perf by Russian actress Dina Korzun, pic is too low-key to generate more than a modest following in domestic release.

Korzun, who copped fest acting prizes for her work in Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Last Resort,” cuts an immediately arresting figure as Laura. Slim and sleek, she pays great attention to her clothes and make-up in preparation for a tribute to her much older music producer husband, Alan James (Rip Torn), only to be ignored during the evening event, much as Brigitte Bardot was disregarded by Michel Piccoli in Godard’s “Contempt.”

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The quiet, vacant look on Korzun’s face as Laura endures the night alone instills the character with considerable mystery and fascination, even if one can’t tell at this early stage if Laura is bored or herself a dullard of whom Alan has tired.

Laura and Alan have a 3-year-old son; more important, Alan has a grown son, Michael (Darren Burrows), a good-looking Californian who belatedly turns up for the celebration. Michael has effectively escaped the grasp of his condescending father and prefers to remain disengaged from the melodrama he generates.

Melodrama also seems to be something that doesn’t interest Sachs and co-writer Michael Rohatyn. Despite the opportunities for fireworks provided by Laura and Michael’s growing attraction, the arrival of the latter’s pregnant wife and the constant potential of vituperative eruptions from Alan, the film remains subdued and impressionistic. Sachs deliberately presents relatively undifferentiated dramatic snippets rather than fully developed, multifaceted scenes; even when Laura and Michael finally get it on, it’s presented abruptly, with no preparation or buildup.

Still, an understated portrait of Laura’s unhappy life begins to modestly emerge. “I don’t have the right to complain,” Laura tells Michael at one point; life in the United States is so much better than what she used to have in Russia, where she met Alan. But she can’t help but believe everyone around her is spoiled, and the title comes to reflect the many gradations of largely unarticulated dissatisfactions Laura feels.

Sachs’ professed filmmaking hero is Ken Loach. While it’s easy to detect that influence in Sachs’ curious, intelligent, observational style, pic is still dramatically flat and visually wedded to a drab, old-school documentary aesthetic.

Also softening the overall impact is Burrows’ performance, which strives for expressive minimalism but comes off as merely ineffectual. One can see that Michael would like to be invisible in his father’s presence, but Burrows is recessive to a counterproductive degree, which stills the surface of the story’s deep-running waters.

Torn is ideally cast as the aging, outsized music personality accustomed to being catered to, but the role seems a familiar one that provides few surprises; Alan is a bellicose, misogynistic tyrant who’s never going to change, so it’s only a question of what Laura is going to do.

Which leaves the picture to Korzun, who slowly but surely reveals Laura’s torment and lack of fulfillment with a man more than twice her age in a city that appears staggeringly boring if you’re not into the music scene.

Production design gives Alan a house in which no decor has changed since the ’70s. Original score by Dickon Hinchliffe is abetted by loads of R&B, folk and soul tunes, many from vet producer Bert Russell Berns.

Forty Shades of Blue

  • Production: A Charlie Guidance/Margot Bridger production of a Flux Film/Tiny Dancer/High Line presentation in association with Mirage Enterprises. Produced by Bridger, Ira Sachs, Mary Bing, Jawal Nga, Donald Rosenfeld. Executive producers, Geoff Stier, Diane Von Furstenberg. Directed by Ira Sachs. Screenplay, Michael Rohatyn, Sachs.
  • Crew: Camera (Duart color), Julian Whatley; editor, Affonso Goncalves; music, Dickon Hinchliffe; music supervisor, Susan Jacobs; production designer, Teresa Mastropierro; costume designer, Eric Daman; sound (Dolby Digital), Antonio Arroyo; sound mixer, Dominick Tavella; assistant director, Curtis A. Smith Jr.; casting, Avy Kaufman, Jordan Beswick. Reviewed at Sunset screening room, West Hollywood, Jan. 10, 2005. (In Sundance Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 108 MIN.
  • With: Alan James - Rip Torn Laura - Dina Korzun Michael - Darren Burrows Lonni - Paprika Steen Duigan - Red West Celia - Jenny O'Hara
  • Music By: