The unlikely pairing of author Christopher Isherwood and painter Don Bachardy is one of those legendary but true L.A. stories that confounds the city’s cliched Tinseltown image, and “Chris & Don: A Love Story” is well-attuned to this, focusing on the texture and sweetness of a particularly beguiling real-life gay love saga. Made with gentle grace and sensitivity, pic is certain to win hearts and minds at fests and vid, with a good chance at select theatrical dates.
In broad terms, the meeting of Isherwood and Bachardy was one of modern Europe encountering upstart America, with Isherwood as the upper-crust literary light and Bachardy as an unformed Angeleno seeking adventure. The roughly chronological telling in Guido Santi’s and Tina Mascara’s film reveals a more complicated picture, however. Isherwood was out of the closet far ahead of most in his wartime generation, and proved so rebellious at Cambridge that he was kicked out. The much younger and more impressionable Bachardy may have been Eliza Doolittle to Isherwood’s Henry Higgins, but the youngster proved to be an exceptionally gifted portrait painter in his own right.
With a rich supply of archival and homemovie material, the pic shows the heady life in Weimar Berlin that drew Isherwood like a moth to a flame, and inspired his classic “Berlin Stories” that formed the basis for “Cabaret” and a considerable portion of his fame.
Isherwood fled Germany during the Nazi rise, and landed in Gotham alongside the brilliant poet and pal W. H. Auden (also seen in rare homemovie glimpses). Isherwood soon moved to Los Angeles, where he met Bachardy, as well as a dazzling cultural circle including Igor Stravinsky and Aldous Huxley.
The loquacious and energetic Bachardy is seen working and puttering about the Santa Monica home he and Isherwood shared for decades, but the film fails to explore the the linkages between Bachardy’s fascination for the painted image and Isherwood’s movie-influenced switch from traditional prose to what he termed “writing with a camera eye.” Another odd absence is Isherwood’s longtime friend Julie Harris.
But the docu also delivers a sense of triumph, in that Bachardy, who outlived Isherwood, winds up able to thrive away from Isherwood’s considerable shadow; in many ways, “Chris & Don” can be read as a study in the growth of artistic confidence, as a young man with no strong vision is loved and encouraged to find his way until he discovers his metier. Passage of Isherwood’s long and gradual death at home is extremely touching, with Bachardy displaying his many illustrations documenting Isherwood’s decline, including his death visage.
Tech package is clean and spare, with camera coverage of Bachardy at home avoiding the standard talking heads approach. Animation by Katrina Swanger and Kristina Swanger, inspired by the simple horse and cat cartoon characters that Isherwood and Bachardy used in cards and letters to each other, is just this side of too cute.