Forty Shades of Blue: Ira Sachs Sundance Fest Film

The surprise winner of this year’s Sundance Film Festival Drama Competition was Ira Sachs’ “Forty Shades of Blue,” a tale about the moral awakening of a young Russian immigrant, caught between two men.

A decent (but no great) film, it suffers from a rambling narrative and unexciting directing, just like Sachs’ first film, “The Delta.”

On never knows what goes on behind closed doors in jury deliberation (I have served on 42 film festival juries, including Sundance, in 2003), but to award the Grand Jury prize to “Forty Shades” in a year that included two gems, Miranda July’s highly original “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” and the terrific sampler of regional indie cinema, “Junebug,” sounds peculiar, to say the least.

It’s easier to evaluate Sachs film by their intent than by their level of execution. As written and helmed by Sachs, “Forty Shades” tell the story of Laura (Dina Korzun), a Russian woman living in Memphis with a much older rock n’ roll legend, and the personal awakening she experiences in the wake of her unfortunate affair with his estranged son.

Alan James (Rip Torn) is a legend in Memphis, a white man who produced black music in the 1960s and 1970s, the heyday of Memphis Soul. Though aging, he’s still living the high life in a comfortable house. Alan lives with his girlfriend Laura, a beauty he met on tour in Moscow. Laura spends most of her time alone or raising their three-year-old son, Sam. A stranger in Memphis, she lives an outsider’s, alienated life,

Alan also has a grown son, Michael (Darren Burrows), with whom he has a complicated relationship fueled by jealousy, disappointment and anger. When Michael returns home for the first time in years, the initial hostility towards his father’s “girl” develops into something more intriguing and dangerous, a messy affair.

“Forty Shades” tries to illuminate the exterior and interior tangled lives of these individuals by placing them against the unique locale of Memphis, Tennessee, the hometown of Sachs, where he has also set “The Delta.”

Set in the world of Memphis music, “Forty Shades of Blue” continues to explore some of the issues that have been central to Sachs’ work in the past. As in “The Delta,” about a half-black, half-Vietnamese gay man living in Memphis, new film is about characters that exist both inside and outside of their own environment.

In “Forty Shades,” it’s the rumbling beneath Laura’s surface that drives the story. Sachs challenges the audience’s easy dismissal of this woman whose only power seems to reside in her physical looks. He forces the viewers to look deeper, to think of the challenges and the circumstances that make Laura a heroine worthy of their attention.

Sachs goes out of his way to shatter the nation that Laura is a typical trophy wife. Vigilantly guarded, she sublimates her own desires out of a stoic sense of duty and reluctance to impose on Alan’s generosity. Her intuitive bond with Michael destabilizes her tightly ordered world. Michael becomes a mirror that allows her to see herself and the new possibilities in her life.

On the plus side, the film does deal with the kind of character that often gets overlooked in mainstream cinema. An immigrant woman, supported by a powerful man, is usually a character that stays on the periphery. Hence, Sachs places Laura center-stage, focusing on her gradual and troubled moral awakening. Through the text, design, and camera, the film gives Laura an iconic presence onscreen. To what extent she deserves such focused and glowing treatment is up to the viewers to decide, and I, for one, was far more interested in the characters of Allan and Michael than in Laura.

Even so, Sachs captures the inner life of a woman who initially has illusions, and even wrong ideas about life, but is thrown off-balance by a tumultuous love story that gives her a reason to start ask questions about her identity.

The best thing about the otherwise mediocre film is Rip Torn’s volcanic performance, a return to the kind of lead roles he was known for in the 1970s, in films like “Payday,” The Man Who Fell to Earth, and “Coming Apart.” Sachs wrote the part of Alan James specifically for Torn’s qualifications, and it’s nice to see him in a major role, after decades of playing supporting turns.

Torn has always been good in find and balancing the comic and the tragic in his performances, and he doesn’t disappoint here, conveying the depth and riches of his experienced life in subtle ways through the look in his eyes, the varied intonation of his voice, and both the suppressed and expressed emotions he’s able to convey.

In her first role in an American film, after her winning performance in Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Last Resort,” Korzun is good, but even though she is the narrative center, the film belongs to Torn.

“Fort Shades” is a personal film: The genesis of the story is based on Sachs’ relationship with his own father, a Memphis entrepreneur, who now lives in Park City, Utah, site of the Sundance Film Festival.

The film’s soundtrack helps a lot to alleviate the occasional tedium, featuring little known soul classics of music producer Bert Russell Berns, the creator of such pop standards as “Twist and Shout” and “Down in the Valley.” Like Berns, as interpreted by Torn, Alan James is a man known primarily by people who love music; musicians come to these small towns because they want to work with the legends and have a piece of that magic.

Filled with music throughout, the movie boasts an original score by Dickon Hinchliffe, of the band Tindersticks, who Sachs discovered through his scores for French filmmaker Claire Denis. Along with the original recordings of four Bert Berns songs, the film also includes R&B legend J. Blackfoot’s rendition of the Dan Penn/Chips Moman classic “Dark End of the Street,” and original American folksongs written and performed by Jim Dickinson and Sid Selvidge, both underground figures.