A comedy, and also a tragedy, of remarriage — without couples counseling or divorce — writer-director Azazel Jacobs’ The Lovers revitalizes its genre with a piquant premise: What happens when long-wedded spouses, each with a romantic partner outside their dormant dyad, find the spark reignited — a combustion that results in their carrying out an “adulterous” affair, two-timing the very same people they’ve been cheating with? As he did in his two previous features — Momma’s Man (2008), a wry, tender rejoinder to the comedies of male regression then ascendant, and Terri (2011), a high-school movie orbiting around a mountainous, pajama-clad protagonist — Jacobs lets casually observed details and offhand humor advance the story. There are no grand pronouncements in The Lovers, which smartly communicates its ideas about relationships during its long stretches of silence.
For a film that, as its plot demands, often features bodies in extreme physical proximity — embracing, fucking, fighting — The Lovers also pays close attention to the spatial (and emotional) chasms separating its constellation of couples, evidenced in the softly shattering opening scene. A woman is sobbing on a bed; she is Lucy (Melora Walters), the girlfriend of married Michael (Tracy Letts), who stands several feet away, looking at her with slight contempt. “Please don’t cry, Lucy,” are his only words of consolation, and they are laced with the resentment of a man who has grown weary of reassuring a woman whose misery he is at least half-responsible for.
At the home in Santa Clarita, California, that Michael shares with his wife, Mary (Debra Winger), conversation involves little more than errand reminders (“We’re almost out of toothpaste”). Mary sneaks away as often as she can to be with Robert (Aidan Gillen), a writer whose bedroom serves as a pitiful shrine to himself, the walls adorned with taped-up newspaper mentions (one reads: “Glimpses of Lives”).
Like Robert, Lucy, a ballet instructor, also supports herself as an artist (if only a nominal one); their unconventional career choices may be what appealed to desk-bound Michael and Mary. (With her windowed office at an unnamed company, Mary seems to be more successful than her husband, who is confined to a cubicle at Greenways Land Surveying.) That we’re given the freedom to consider this as one of many possibilities typifies The Lovers’ ruminative and rueful tone: The film begins in medias res and reveals backstory data about its characters slowly.
What matters in The Lovers — and what all of the central cast, especially Letts and Winger, so meticulously inhabit — isn’t the past, the why and how of the marriage’s souring, or when the spouses got together with their paramours. It is instead the unstable present and the various fictions that these four dissembling adults are committed to manufacturing, particularly when Michael and Mary discover that they still desire each other.
“Let’s just start over tomorrow,” Michael tells Lucy after yet another dustup. The line, so gutting in its resignation, reminded me of a similarly despairing one in another kind of domestic drama, Agnès Varda’s Documenteur (1981): “We do and undo.” It is the motto of people who are engaged in the most widespread Sisyphean labor — maintaining a relationship, an adventure that The Lovers depicts in all of its ardor and arduousness.