Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If one offered for love
all the wealth of one’s house,
it would be utterly scorned.
Song of Solomon 8:6-7
See, a king will reign in righteousness, and princes will rule with justice.
Each will be like a hiding-place from the wind, a covert from the tempest, like streams of water in a dry place, like the shade of a great rock in a weary land.
Then the eyes of those who have sight will not be closed, and the ears of those who have hearing will listen.
The minds of the rash will have good judgment…
Academy Award winning director Robert Benton (Kramer Vs. Kramer and Places in the Heart invites us to a cinematic meal that is spiritually nutritious and satisfying—though the frank scenes of lovemaking should serve as a cautionary flag for church leaders wanting to engage their people in cinematic dialogue. Both love—sexual and relational between the generations—and seeing are themes explored in this moving work.
Harry Stevenson (Morgan Freeman) is the observer and the narrator of the joys and heart-aches of a varied group of middle-aged and young men and women drawn together by love, which also sometimes ironically destroys their relationship with others. As the stories progress, Harry himself becomes more of a participant, opening up his own broken heart—to his wife and to a young woman whose own family has been swallowed up by death.
Harry is a college professor in Portland, Oregon, where he is a daily customer at an espresso coffee shop. (Fans of Charles Baxter’s novel, on which the script is based, have lamented that the locale was changed from Ann Arbor, MI, but they need not fear that this spoils things.) We first hear Harry’s world-weary voice commenting on the Greek myth that the gods invented humanity to relieve their boredom. Still bored, they invented love. They tried it themselves, and then they created laughter—so they could stand love. They are no longer bored. Nor will you be as this fascinating movie gives flesh to what Harry means.
Harry has become friends with cafe owner Bradley Thomas (Greg Kinnear), who is a naive man unable to see what is going on around him—such as the pass that a woman they have just met is making for his wife Kathryn (Selma Blair) as the four of them sit conversing and sipping coffee in a booth. Harry and his wife Esther (Jane Alexander) watch sadly as Kathryn moves out of the house next to them to be with her lesbian lover—and later, after Bradley has unwisely fallen for the lustful real estate agent Diana (Radha Mitchell), Harry watches with a sense of foreboding as Bradley falls in love “again,” and Diana moves in. Harry’s concern is well justified, because the married Diana had been carrying on a passionate affair with David (Billy Burke). Although she has broken with him to marry Bradley, when they meet at a BBQ, their old lust is revived, and they are sneaking off again to be together. Harry watches Bradley’s second wife moving out of the house, one that Harry thinks must be under a curse.
Still another aspect of love is seen in the relationship of the young lovers Chloe (Alexa Davalos) and Oscar (Toby Hemmingway) who work at the coffee shop under Bradley. Both of them are searching for who they are, with Oscar marrying Chloe partly to escape from his domineering alcoholic father (Fred Ward), and Chloe to find the family that she lost when her parents died. She has been told by a kind medium that a dark future looms ahead for Oscar, but she marries him anyway. In a further quest for security she asks while dancing with Harry at their wedding reception if he and his wife might “adopt” them.
We are left after witnessing both foibles and tragedy with the assurance that despite everything love, despite its heartaches, does matter. A group of young adults, after seeing this film together —older ones might be put off by the frankness of the sex scenes (though at times I have been surprised to see that the opposite is the case)—could enter into a deep discussion of love and relationships commitment, death, and the need for spiritual discernment.
1) What do you think of the Greek myth about the invention of humanity, love, and laughter? Especially in comparison to the Biblical story of creation? How does laughter make “love” bearable—is Harry talking about “Eros” love or “agape” love?
2) How is Harry like Henry Nouwen’s “Wounded Healer” ? That is, how is he able to help and yet need help himself? (More on this later)
3) What does Bradley’s obsession in keeping the dog reveal about him? How did his buying it as a gift for his wife show his blindness?
4) When Harry says to Bradley, “Everything we need to know is going on right before our eyes. Now we have our illusions about people, our hopes, and they can blind us,” how is he like the “king” or “prince” in the Isaiahan passage? And how is Bradley like those whose eyes and ears have been closed? How have you been disappointed because of your illusions about someone?
5) What do you think Chloe is seeking when she asks Harry if he and his wife will “adopt” them? How does she display courage ?
6) What was it that wounded Harry so deeply that he has taken a leave of absence from his teaching position? Note his expression of guilt when he confesses that “I did not see” what was taking place in his grown son’s life. How does his involvement with Bradley and Chloe and Oscar contribute to his healing? Why do you think that he tells Chloe to have “at least two” children?
7) What do you think of Diana’s comment that sometimes she thinks that love is a trick played on us by Nature so that we “will bring more screaming babies into the world” ? How is this a fairly widespread feeling? Oldsters might recall the line from Simon and Garfunkel’s great song “I Am a Rock,” “If I never would have loved, I never would have cried! I am a rock, I am an island…” 8) What do you think of Bradley’s explanation of his seemingly irrational act of cutting off the tip of his finger? How can suffering physical pain help release psychic pain? (Note: Film lovers might want to revisit a film in which this is a major theme, The Pawnbroker, wherein a Jewish Holocaust survivor has been so psychically numbed by the horrors he witnessed in a Nazi death camp that he purposely impales his hand in order to feel again.)
9) How does Bradley learn “to see” —that is how does he leave his naivety behind as he moves toward a measure of maturity? How is his new commitment similar to Chloe’s, an act of courage?
10) Where do you think God is at work in this film?