Alexander the Last, Dir. Joe Swanberg, Now Playing
What is infidelity? The evergreen question vexed shaman and spouse alike well before Facebook; the new independent IFC/Filmscience release Alexander the Last asks it again. The whole film can be seen as a betrayal, but even if it doesn’t always remain faithful to itself, much of Alexander’s writing and acting charms like a stolen kiss.
Filmed on location in Brooklyn, with Trout Bar, local parks, and a comix store as minor celebrities, writer/director Joe Swanberg’s latest premiered recently at South By Southwest. Alexander is available in Swanberg’s adopted hometown of Williamsburg and everywhere via video-on-demand at IFC’s website.
Alexandra (Jess Weixler) and Hellen (Amy Seimetz) open the film all treacly, reciting wedding vows and exchanging dandelion rings in the park, childishly staging an adult fact about their relationship: it supercedes any others, including the one Alex has with her husband Elliot (Justin Rice). But not the way you’re thinking.
No, Swanberg’s are-they-lesbians-or-are-they-friends? tease resolves quickly; the women are not lovers, but sisters, and the only girl-on-girl action in Alexander is their acid argument over a man. Sibling rivalry initially raises the stakes for the unconsummated romance between stage actress Alex and the bait for their cat-fight, her on-stage costar Jamie (Barlow Jacobs) but it soon takes over.
You can always tell when a married woman finds a man attractive—she pushes another woman on him as a stand-in. And when married Alex finds herself attracted to Jamie in lieu of her musician husband Elliot (Is that a betrayal?), she shoves her fresh-off-the-bus-from-Tennessee co-star at her sister Hellen. (Is this a betrayal?) Hellen’s a voracious connoisseuse of a photographer whose appreciation of other women’s panty lines, cat-like eyes, and two-toned hair lets viewers know she’s playing the Kim Cattrall part. (And what about the fact that Seimetz as Hellen is the only conventionally sexy actor in a story that’s all about coveting—does that betray the viewer, instructing us not to desire a married woman?)
Sexy Hellen dries the Tennessee buck out behind his ears, but not so thoroughly that he doesn’t have to couch-surf at Alex’s Brooklyn studio apartment throughout their play’s rehearsal period. Hellen does Jamie, but doesn’t let him mooch. She leaves his care and feeding to her more conventional sis Alex. (And this? Is this a betrayal? Of whom?)
Alex feeds and cock-teases Jamie in her small apartment by night, rehearses intimate scenes from their play with him by day—all while her band-touring husband avoids her calls. (Is that a betrayal?) Despite opportunity and motive to enact various marital crimes, Alex keeps it to misdemeanors. (Still, betrayals, surely, all of them.)
Nevertheless, between the single sister’s affair and the play-within-a-film about marital intimacy, Alexander presents plenty of screwing. As Alex and Jamie pretend to enact sex on stage, there’s something poignant about the way they submit to their director (the stand-out Jane Adams squandered in a tiny part), as she bends their stiff limbs around each other, pulling and pushing them together, attracted by their attraction. Transfixed by lust and the forbidden, Alex and Jamie initially won’t submit, even with the playwright and director egging them on. Eventually, however, after many moments of wanting to do something but knowing they should not, and of falling in love but not acting on it, and of being in love but not wanting to be, Alex and Jamie find their groove.
A sequence that intercuts Alex’s “fake” stage sex with Hellen’s “real” acted sex arouses more than curiosity about whether director Swanberg intends to comment on the false moments in real sex or the real moments in acted-out sex. He doesn’t. Instead, Swanberg transposes and crossfades the audio from Jamie’s grinding with Hellen to his fumblings with Alex, contrasting the carnal heat of the former to the more delicate development of the latter. The budding romance warms to, but not past, the boiling point: Alex confesses to Jane Adams that her body (not she) has somehow registered what her morals (not she) wish “it” wouldn’t. Offstage, the “stage” lovers share a cigarette, arms entwined beneath an umbrella, the distance between them obsolete. (Is that a betrayal? Of whom?)
Before the dress rehearsal, Alex’s suppressed intimacy and physical ease with Jamie give the lie to the frankness of Hellen’s fling. (Is that a betrayal?) The sisters seal an implicit pact: Alex serves as appetizer but Hellen supplies the meat. And this, it turns out, is where the rubber meets the road on their childlike vows. It’s the betrayal of their unspoken pact—when Hellen dumps Jamie in a move of sheer but utterly normal sibling sadism—that prompts the core argument of the film. Alex complains that Hellen is being “mean” to Jamie, but her subtext is “How could you do this to me?!” Losing her sister as a beard means Alex has to take responsibility for her desire.
As for Alex’s mere husband Elliot, upon his return to B’lyn the scenes from his marriage are so minor —more screened phone calls (his) and sex avoidance (hers)—that they scarcely merit the label “betrayal.” Unless you’ve ever been in a relationship. And when Elliot is clearly smitten by his female bandmate, in whose favor Alex’s phone calls are screened, their link reveals an origin of his and Alex’s cycles of abandonment and betrayal—and perhaps the raison d’être for Elliot’s roadtrip.
Much real drama unfolds in Alexander—so much that the film lingers in the viewer’s mind for days and days. Admirable work defines the setup, worthy of independent film’s best practitioners. Unfortunately, the film’s solutions—that Alex shut her mouth about her connection to Jamie and silently tolerate Elliot’s distance even as she weeps for the loss of both romances—are as two-dimensional as Swanberg’s occasional foray into expressionistic mise-en-scène in such a naturalistic film (and sadly, the too-much-handheld camera is as uneven as the sound quality). That these solutions “work,” allowing the married pair eventually to recapture their mutual attraction is either testament to the power of commitment—or to Swanberg’s interest in having women settle.
Swanberg’s wasted opportunity to advocate grown-up confrontation and knowledge over childish payback rankles. A film about artists today navigating (as the film’s promo boasts) “sexual and creative temptations” might have reflected or at least proposed a more tempting creative and sexual resolution to the age-old dilemma. Perhaps it’s human nature to find these waters too rough—or perhaps this writer/director betrays his own heroine. One clue might lie in the film’s coda—a final scene from the play in which the wife pulls a knife out of the bookshelf and approaches her spouse—which admits that Swanberg at least knows the cost of the path he proposes. What is infidelity, indeed? Is it a lack of faithfulness to your spouse—or to yourself?
Lisa Moricoli-Latham writes "The Naughty Bride's Secret Guide", a blog of matrimonial humor.