To everyone who has seen Beginners (dir. Mike Mills, 2011), which is unfortunately seemingly only a lucky few, the film is unreservedly about love. Familial love, gay love, straight love, love between friends, love of a specific moment in time, and even the love between pet owner and pet factor into Mike Mills’ breakout decade-old feature. All this being said, the film hinges on a traditional romantic plot between Ewan McGregor’s Oliver and Melanie Laurent’s Anna and how they fall in, out, and back in love. Grounding a film so singular with such an established cinematic plot helps Beginners connect with us by offering the best version of something familiar. This makes it easier to connect with the grander operations the entire film is orchestrating . It doesn’t shy away from genre tropes, it embraces them (especially the tropes of late 2000’s American independent comedy-drama) which makes Beginners a better overall film.
Like any romance that wants to engage its audience, Anna and Oliver’s relationship begins inside the confines of the film. We are shown a party scene where Anna gets Oliver to open up for the first time since the recent death of his father (a career best performance for Christopher Plummer, may he rest in peace) by being present and unique. This allows us to become immediately invested in the relationship between Anna and Oliver not only because we get to see the origins of it, but also because we can see how Anna changes Oliver’s demeanor and, seemingly, his outlook.
Anna changes Oliver so much, in fact, that the film toes the line of having Anna being an anti-feminist archetype. A stock, perfect girl character with no life beyond what we see of her with the male character and is only written to be an endearing catalyst for him to experience interior change. The film skirts that line, however, not because we don’t see Oliver change, but because Beginners gives us significant glimpses into Anna’s interior life over the course of the rest of the runtime. In a film centered around Oliver’s relationship with his recently out, and even more recently deceased father, the scenes with Anna and himself arguably become dominated by her and what she is feeling. Her ennui about her career never letting her ever put down any real roots due to her constant travel, her insecurity of not being enough to help make up for Oliver’s loss, her lack of knowledge or direction of how to be a domestic partner, and later, her own complicated relationship with her father – these are all real emotions and flaws that factor into her character becoming fleshed out as the film goes on. More importantly, they give us the emotional hooks we need to latch on to Anna by being able to see her experience these real, complex emotions.
Not to say that Beginners never takes the time to be light or funny. In fact, humor is an important part of our bond with Anna and Oliver. In almost every scene where they are not experiencing profound sadness, Anna and Oliver are constantly joking with one another. Humor is how they first interact, through Oliver pretending to be Freud at a costume party where he psychoanalyzes Anna’s costumed character (I did some research on this and could only find two real guesses on who she is: a PopSugar article where the author says she is Charlie Chaplin and an early draft of the screenplay that says she is Julius Rosenberg. Neither of those seemed entirely correct.) Humor is how Anna and Oliver interact with each other throughout the honeymoon phase of their courtship, like when Anna asks Oliver to hand her camisole to her, but he obviously does not know what she is talking about and hands her increasingly dissimilar objects. These recurring instances of humor help us feel more positive feelings about these characters.
Lastly, it would be a disservice to discuss the characters so much without giving credit to the actors behind them. Ewan McGregor gives an incredibly sad, soulful performance where his vulnerability is the biggest reason that we identify with him. We may not have experienced what Oliver is going through, but his openness exposes us to familiar feelings. On the other hand, Melanie Laurent is gentle and reserved as Anna, showing us someone whose sadness is about to boil over. Laurent gives us a different character and a different point of view for us to identify with.