Love Streams: Cassavetes' Swansong

Love Streams is a personal film, and so will be my review of it. I saw the film for the first time years ago during one winter, and the moment it was over, something in me was changed; I had a deeper appreciation for film and became a worshiper of John Cassavetes, a man who makes movies like no other. “This picture, this picture; I don’t give a fuck what anybody says. If you don’t have time to see it, don’t. If you don’t like it, don’t. If it doesn’t give you an answer, fuck you. I didn’t make it for you anyways.” Those were the man’s words on the film, and that in my opinion, is the highest and most respectable form of filmmaking and art in general, the uncompromisingly personal. People often say that the best films are the ones you lose yourself completely in, but for me, no matter what I’m watching, I’m aware that it is a film; Love Streams comes the closest to blinding the boundary between reality and fiction. It not only gave me an answer, it gave me multiple; through its rich dialogue and honest depictions, every revisit reveals a new layer, and consequently, a new answer.

The story is simple: two broken siblings, a boozing writer by the name of Robert Harmon and an overly-loving divorced mother by the name of Sarah Lawson, played by John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, find comfort in each other’s company after their lives take a bad turn; the way the story plays, however, is anything but simple. An intense character study of both protagonists that aims to answer a million questions and answers very few, Love Streams questions identity, relationships, independence, and of course most importantly, love. What does it mean to love? Does it stop? When is it too much? Is it necessary? There’s a making-of documentary on the film called “I’m Almost Not Crazy Now – John Cassavetes, The Man and His Work” in which he says, “I have a need for the characters to really analyze love, discuss it, kill it, destroy it, hurt each other, do all the stuff in that war, in that word-polemic and film-polemic of what life is. And the rest of the stuff doesn’t really interest me. It may interest other people, but I have a one-track mind. That’s all I’m interested in – love. And the lack of it.” That’s Love Streams.

I like to think of the film as a three-part story: one dedicated to Robert, who believes that “love is a fantasy little girls have” and is, therefore, entirely independent of it and numbs himself through life with alcohol and prostitutes; one dedicated to Sarah, who believes that “love is a continuous stream” and who has so much to offer to two people who don’t want what she’s offering, and is therefore left with torrents of unending love with nowhere to go; and the third story is of the two siblings reuniting and coming to a compromise, quenching Sarah’s love and shaking Robert’s solitude. The first hour of the film intercuts their separate stories continuously, Robert’s nights of binge-drinking are alternated with Sarah’s painful divorce, complete remoteness versus excruciating change.

Robert’s fascination is not with love, but with easy alternatives of it: he surrounds himself with a lot of young girls that he pays for, not for sex, but for trying to “get the secret out of them” because according to him, every beautiful woman has a secret, and through his quest to find it, he forfeits his own “secret”, complete fascination with the other in exchange for complete negligence of the self. When he is forced to spend a weekend with his son whom he had not seen since his birth, and when he desperately needs to display love and affection, his response is to deal with an 8-year-old like he does with everybody else, or even harsher. It’s not tough love, it’s years of absence painfully compressed into a few hours; hatred, fascination, confusion, imitation, acceptance...a million feelings in so little time.

Sarah’s segment displays the contrast between the two characters; his is a reflection of careless abandon in eternal solitude, and hers is streams of love suddenly without aim. Shot with the theatrical precision of a Bergman or a Fassbinder, the scenes of Sarah’s divorce and child custody battle are as tense as they are painful in the way they show her suddenly against all she loved. You see and feel the betrayal around her, and the sudden disbelief in love by everyone except her; she holds her ground. Her psychiatrist’s advice is a trip to Europe and a love affair with anyone she can find, literal escape and meaningless sex, but even in her attempts at progress, uncomfortable nostalgia is present, she has not moved on, and she is not like her brother, she’d rather live in a fantasy than face up to the facts.

Even after their reunion, Sarah’s longing for the past finds no end: dream sequences, calls, idealistic memories...finding closure proves immensely hard for her. Their reunion also highlights them as opposites even more visibly; this is complete acceptance of solitude and the death of love against stunned disbelief and disoriented energy, awareness that things end against the need for the perpetual, numbing of the senses against inexhaustible passion. By the end, when Sarah has been able to move on, we see Robert through a rain-soaked window as he waves goodbye to Sarah; she has come to him, made an impact in a way he still refuses to show, found the balance she spoke of so often, and then left, in a way, proving him right.

John Cassavetes made 11 films in total (with a commercial project in 1986), all of them are emblems of his immaculate craft: when you see a Cassavetes, you know it. In a filmography that contains many masterpieces, Love Streams shines as his opus, a film that so beautifully captures everything he ever cared for in the most profound way imaginable, a tasteful film with bottomless pits, just like its subject matter, love.


You might also like these articles: