It's a cruel thing, outliving the man who adored you and whom you adored in return. The Don Bachardy seen going on with his life in "Chris & Don: A Love Story" is a forlorn but affable figure. It's been 22 years since his partner, Christopher Isherwood, died, and the longing hasn't receded much. Now he aches with flair. The painter walks us through his reminiscences of four decades entwined with the novelist like a highly theatrical curator. Or given Bachardy's taste for the limelight: like the star of one of his one-man shows.
The movie is less enthralling than he is. Directed by Tina Mascara and Guido Santi, it maintains a gingerly distance from the passion and intensity that kept the two men drawn to each other for so long. We're watching Bachardy, their friends, and footage of him and Isherwood together from behind museum glass. That approach has its merits, namely as a means of introducing viewers to these fascinating individuals. But it's too remote a lens though which to view the man (Isherwood) whose novella "Goodbye to Berlin" eventually became "Cabaret."
Bachardy met Isherwood in Los Angeles in the early 1950s. He and his brother, Ted, were young autograph and photo hounds, grabbing snapshots with the stars. (Don reports that at 4, he was watching Joan Crawford in "The Shining Hour.") And the Englishman Isherwood had moved west from prewar Europe via New York and was ensconced as a screenwriter in the Hollywood production machine. It was Ted whom Isherwood met first. They fooled around. But after Ted went mad and received shock treatment, it was the miserable Don whom Isherwood looked after. Almost in his 50s, Isherwood was 30 years older than Bachardy, and he admitted that the attraction, on his part, was somewhat paternal. Bachardy, meanwhile, was equally smitten with the glamorous people in Isherwood's universe. In any case, the love they fell into was real and amazingly durable.
What we have in "Chris & Don" is a gay marriage eons before gay marriage, a famous writer in emotional betrothal to a man 30 years his junior. There they were at the vanguard of an as-yet nonexistent movement, traveling among Hollywood's homophobes and closet cases as an openly, flamboyantly gay couple. The politics aren't lost on us. But the movie doesn't aim to be political. It's much more concerned with being polite, touching on the most fascinating elements of Bachardy's half of the relationship without necessarily exploring them.
At 70-something, he still speaks with the patrician cadences he stole from Isherwood all those years ago. He explains his concocted accent by calling himself an "unconscious imitator," and the movie pretty much leaves it at that. Bachardy considered himself a sponge. Then, he explains, Isherwood put him through art school and everything changed. Painting gave him an identity distinct from his partner, and it put his talent for imitation to more illuminating use.
In the movie, his art isn't featured as prominently as it probably should be. We do, however, see Bachardy at work, painting nude and half-dressed young men in his studio. And there he is working out at the gym the way a lot of men in their 70s do: too fast. I suppose shots like these were meant to give us a sense of his day-to-day life. But they come annoyingly close to making him seem like a gay cliche.
It's easy to get hung up on filler like that when the filmmakers haven't decided what, ultimately, their movie is about - an uncommon relationship, its ups and downs, the art created by the two men in that relationship, whether Bachardy is coping or thriving without Isherwood. As loving and welcome as "Chris & Don" is, it's not well enough conceived to create equilibrium among its many parts. But the many shots of Bachardy, in a lonely state, staring beyond the camera or into his lap do constitute an achievement. The directors have almost made him resemble one of his paintings.