Forty Shades Of Blue Review

The winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2005, Ira Sach’s Forty Shades Of Blue, combines the slow, moody deliberation of European arthouse with all the flavours of the United States R&B music and its industry. An intriguing proposition, it’s unfortunate then that there is surprisingly little in the script’s dialogue and storyline – a banal, plodding story of a familial love-triangle – to live up to the mood and execution it is graced with.

The person lost in this middle ground between Europe and America is Laura (Dina Korzun), a Russian immigrant, formerly a guide and translator in Moscow, who has fallen in love with and now lives in Memphis with a famous record producer, Alan James (Rip Torn). Although they have a young son together, Laura and Alan are not married and the relationship is on shaky ground. Alan - a big name in the music industry and well-respected by his peers - continues to live up to the hard-drinking, womanising lifestyle that has seen him already go through a string of marriages. The estranged son of one of those marriages, Michael (Darren Burrows) comes to visit and stay, hoping as an adult to be able to better relate to his father, particularly as his wife is pregnant now with his own child. With difficulties in his own marriage however, Michael finds he relates more to Laura’s position, and a potentially dangerous relationship forms between them.

The love-triangle situation in Forty Shades Of Blue is not particularly original and there is a fair amount of broadness in the definition of the character types. Alan James’s larger-than-life high-living celebrity personality contrasts strongly with Laura’s cold Russian distance and detachment, serving to underline strongly the incompatibility of their outlooks and lifestyles. Michael then is the obvious catalyst to break down the barriers between each of these characters, getting below the surface of each of them to uncover the person beneath. The love-triangle of a son falling for his father’s new, young wife isn’t particularly fresh, but neither is the manner in which it is initiated, the script failing to find anything but the most ordinary and commonplace of situations and circumstances to bring them together. He’s an English teacher, she was an English interpreter. She has a young son, he has a child on the way. They both have unhappy relationship with their partners. It doesn’t help that the communication between these two people - who we are told are both writers – consists almost entirely of the most banal and inarticulate conversations imaginable – “Hi, how are you?”, “Not bad, how are you?”, “Pretty good”, “Goodnight”.

In the absence of any kind of interesting situation or dialogue, Forty Shades Of Blue then relies heavily on mood to convincingly convey any inner life to these characters and it is here, not unlike Lost In Translation that the film is at least achieves some measure of success. The sense of location is fabulous, taking in James’ big house on the banks of the Mississippi and incorporating the whole sense of the musical legacy of Memphis, with its evocative blues and roots music. The score relies heavily on the music of Bert Berns, whose name might not be familiar to many, but his songs will be. Tindersticks’ Dickon Hinchcliffe’s original score then counterpoints the US blues with a more European melancholia, the two combining to superbly illustrate the situation of the characters much more than the script or performances are able to do. The European arthouse influence on the filmmakers can also be seen in Dina Korzun’s swimming pool scenes, which bring to mind Juliette Binoche’s attempts to flee from emotional attachment Kieslowski’s Three Colours Blue. Against such a comparison, Sachs can’t but come off badly, particularly when Kieslowski was able to portray the same themes of alienation, coldness, detachment and inner turmoil with infinitely more nuance and complexity.

With very thin characters, poor dialogue and a preponderance of mood, there’s little for the actors to do but stand around and look dazed, and it’s left to Rip Torn then, kicking up a storm every now and again, to give the only sense of any emotional strength or expression shown in any of the characters. Alan James is the most interesting character in the film and the only one to really undergo any kind of positive change – but the script doesn’t give him enough detail to make this transformation – or indeed his original relationship with a cool Russian woman - at all convincing. It’s a pity that the filmmakers, in their numerous drafts for the film, didn’t choose to make James the centre of the film, because, much more than the rather blank peripheral female role, it is in his conflict between a hell-raising lifestyle and a newfound maturity that the real story of the blues lies.

Forty Shades Of Blue is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The DVD is encoded for Region 2 and is in PAL format.

The image here is very soft with a little grain and some minor edge-enhancement, yet the transfer retains a warm filmic quality that is well suited to the mood. Colours then are reasonably good, though there is no great definition in tone or shadow detail, skin tones particularly looking unnatural. There is some cross colouration evident in lighter backgrounds and blocks of neutral tones. One night time scene in the woods close to the end of the film – quite a crucial scene – is rendered almost indistinct due to the flatness of the contrast and lack of definition. Overall thought, it’s a good transfer that has few problems that affect the viewing of the film or the tone in which it is intended. The image certainly is stable throughout, with no artefacting problems and few marks of any kind.

The DVD includes Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks. Both have decent tone and reverberation, though dialogue is not always crystal clear (and there are no hard of hearing subtitles provided). Dialogue is centre based, and the sound design works well within the nature of the film, opening out at appropriate places and for use of incidental music and the score.

An English language film, there are no subtitles, and unfortunately no English subtitles for hearing impaired.

Director Ira Sachs provides a good commentary for the film. Inevitably considering the wealth of other long interviews and extra features on this DVD edition there is a lot of information repeated elsewhere, but Sachs’ easy going narration adds more specific details about the locations, cast and characters relating them to personal reminiscences along with the flow of the film.

Deleted Scenes (12:57)
Ten deleted scenes are included, and unsurprisingly, they consist of mainly common, ordinary everyday situations, none of which add anything to character development. A surprising number of the excised scenes take place around the swimming pool.

Interview with co-writer Michael Rohatyn (18:51)
Rohatyn talks about the various influences that went onto the film, not least of which is the music of Bert Berns in creating the character of Alan James. He also talks about the scripting and drafting process and the influence different European arthouse films had on the various perspectives – Pialat and Loach unbelievably, but more Truffaut, particularly La Peau Douce. He explains the intricacies of the relationships a little better than the film manages to achieve, but they still remain far from convincing.

Interview with Ira Sachs and Dina Korzun (49:54)
In a rather long and comprehensive interview, Sachs also explains the various elements of the film, the location, the music, the cast and their characters and how he wanted them all to work together. A lot is based on his own experiences in Memphis and his background influenced the choice of the film being on the peripheral character, the outsider. Intercutting the interview, Korzun talks about her approach to the role, her thoughts on the character and how it was working with Rip Torn.

Behind The Scenes (14:58)
Through interviews with the cast and crew and some behind-the-scenes rehearsals and discussions, this feature demonstrates quite well the techniques employed for bringing the script to the screen.

Theatrical Trailer (2:39)
Spolier-heavy, the non-anamorphic trailer summarises the whole film in two and a half minutes, right down to its resolution and even the very last shot of the film. Avoid.

Forty Shades Of Blue is a well-made film by a writer and filmmaker who clearly knows his film references, knows the people and the background of the Memphis locations he works in and knows how to convey it through film, able to rely more on mood than dialogue to bring situations to life. Unfortunately, mood is not quite enough to carry the drab, slow, plodding of a predictable situation and outcome, and Sachs has nothing interesting to say about these characters in particular and nothing new to say about relationships in general. Dwelling Lost In Translation style as it does on superfluous characters at the periphery of the story who have no idea what they want to do with their lives, it frustratingly misses out in telling a potentially much more interesting story in examining the personality and conflicts behind the Sam Phillips-like character of Rip Torn’s Alan James. Artificial Eye’s UK DVD release has a reasonably good presentation and any amount of extra features that explain all the intentions and influences of the filmmakers, but without an adequate script, it’s all in the service of very little indeed.

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