A rare serving of adept regional indie cinema, Ira Sachs’s Forty Shades of Blue uses its Memphis milieu as setting and as character—the film is waist-deep in country-blues insouciance humming with nostalgia for itself and disdain for early-millennium consumer homogenization. But Sachs, a talented realist whose previous feature was The Delta (1997), doesn’t cartoon it up; the local fauna lives its own life at the film’s edges. At its center is a graver family implosion fueled by Alan James (Rip Torn), a legendary record producer as tyrannical as he is magnetic, enjoying the autumnal awards-ceremony phase of his career. In his closest orbit coasts Laura (Dina Korzun), his Muscovite girlfriend, and at first blush the sort of bottle-blonde, fastidiously sexed-up trophy mate who walks so that her lank hair will properly catch the breeze.
The mother of Alan’s three-year-old son, Laura is a Lucy Jordan waiting to happen—we first see her searching for relevance in a department store’s perfume aisles, and Sachs shoots her so that she looks less like a confident fashion plate than a child lost in a new city. Korzun, unforgettable as the single-mom émigré in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Last Resort, is perfectly cast—Laura is pretty but also plain, dedicated to beauty-shop artifice yet fiercely intelligent enough to lend her every gesture a sense of dissatisfied helplessness. Her trial comes, more or less, with the unheralded return to Alan’s chintzy but opulent showbiz home of his grown son Michael (Darren Burrows), restively struggling whether he should divorce his wife now that she’s pregnant. Naturally, the two searchers fall in together under Alan’s radar.
The map of Sachs’s story, co-written with soundtrack composer Michael Rohatyn, is far from original or unpredictable, and suffers through more than one unearned ker-blam of melodrama (Burrows’s unhappy, Dad-shadowed hunk goes all heartbroken and swoony for Laura far too quickly). But the film’s rhythms are seductively improv-y and off-kilter, dallying on passing details and often framing the actors as if they’re being surveilled by an invisible camera. Half-heard conversations and inferred backstory are the rule. Sachs, a Memphis native, has cited Ken Loach as an influence; I kept thinking of the last decade of French films, by Assayas, Desplechin, Jacquot, and Doillon. But the difference may be negligible—call it ultranaturalism, lingering in the culture water table from the ’70s of Cassavetes, Rafelson, and Schatzberg, and now a universal aesthetic too rarely achieved in the States. Actors tend to respond to this approach like flowers to sun, and the cast is uniformly genuine, with Torn making an utterly life-size (as opposed to movie-size) egomaniac, blustery and ass-kissed and still holding faith with free love and celebrity privilege.
But it’s Korzun’s film, and she is in complete control of her character, never divulging too much of the haunted woman under the studied facade of American hotsiness. Astounded by her affluent lifestyle, and hyperaware of how easily she could lose it, Laura tiptoes on eggshells in virtually every scene, even as she breaks down into tears after sex and explains it away with an instant and believable lie about her son’s school and her own social discomfiture. It’s a stunning scene, crafted moment to moment like a glasswork, backlighting Laura’s essence as a walking duplicity, self-deluded into believing in the inherent value of modern America.