Blume in Love, 1973
DVD released 2/6/07
Blume in Love, Paul Mazursky’s 1973 divorce comedy, has finally been released on DVD, and the ending is different now than it was then. All the scenes are the same, but the happy ending that Blume in Love must have thought it had 34 years ago has since transformed into an ambiguous final act. The simplistic forgiveness the film feels for its eponymous protagonist has evaporated. It doesn’t go over, and the film is better for it now.
The whole movie hangs on its affectionate portrait of Blume, played perfectly by George Segal. Blume seems like an okay guy: he’s got a cool beard, he’d be pleasant company at a Lakers game, and he’ll loan you the latest Updike. But he’s having some trouble lately. He cheated on Nina, his wife. She left him, and now he’s miserable.
Blume in Love is a portrait of the midlife crisis that ensues after his divorce, and it’s painted in a mellow shade. The movie casually observes Blume as he tries to win back his wife, something he has trouble being casual about. Not that he wouldn’t like to play it cool: like Bob, Carol, Ted, and Alice in Mazursky’s first film, Blume’s a square who feels obligated to embrace the laid back ethos of the time, but he’s tripping over himself trying to be hip, which probably explains the beard.
Impeccably integrated flashbacks starring a clean-shaven Segal reveal that Blume’s beard is a post-breakup affectation, an attempt to be more like Nina’s new fling, Elmo (played with laconic charm by Kris Kristofferson, whose lack of neuroses only serves to highlight Blume’s). The flashbacks give the film a fragmented feel, appropriate given that it’s about divorce; furthermore, the structure puts us in Blume’s court, as we’re trying to piece his life together at the same time he is. This is especially important, as it means the movie itself (not just its characters) are coaxing us to see things from Blume’s P.O.V., and – as we’ll see – siding with him will get troublesome.
Blume’s beard – look at me, I’m different now, I don’t need her – isn’t his only coping mechanism. He also lazes about in Venice – where he and Nina honeymooned – feeling sorry for himself, pontificating in voiceover about the difficulties of love and loss. “I have to have her back,” muses Blume. “If I do not have her back, I will die. I do not want to die. Therefore, I have to have her back.” From conversation, I’ve found out that this line is pitiful to some, hilarious to others, but it’s important in both ways because it gives you the feeling that the movie feels just as sorry for Blume as he does. This is all fine, because in exhibiting all this effrontery, Segal is so charming. His deliberate pluck – look at me, I’m happy, come back to me – gives youthful confidence to a decidedly grown up trauma like divorce. Segal demonstrates the ever-elusive entity of adulthood. He’s perfect as Blume, and that’s why through this study of stunted growth and manipulative maneuvers, he remains so damn likeable. But the charm doubles back on itself when, in Act III, he stops by Nina’s pad, pours himself a stiff drink, and rapes her.
It’s a jolting interlude, due in no small part to the fact that it’s treated as little more than an interlude. The scene gets downright nasty by the time it’s over, showing Nina licking her lips in close-up, insinuating that she’s enjoying it. And the movie trips over itself to excuse Blume from culpability for the awful act: is an insert of him fumbling with the ice cubes right before the act a clumsy attempt to show that he’s drunk and not responsible for what he’s about to do? Or – perhaps more disturbingly— is Blume steeling himself for a deliberate, extremely misguided last-ditch effort to get her back by force? Any way you read it, the movie’s taken a tough turn.
What’s fascinating and troubling is the way that Blume chugs along after the scene, practically ignoring it. I wasn’t around in 1973, but I’m going to venture that the movie got away with the rape scene, at least to a greater extent than it does now. One imdb user who was around in 1973 was reviled upon re-watching it. But why didn’t she react that way before? And why didn’t Roger Ebert so much as mention the rape in his review, even though he covered the scene?
It seems that in the context of the times, it was a forgivable act. But today, the scene throws a disarming kink into the theretofore pleasant proceedings, putting everything that happens afterwards up to close contemporary scrutiny. If it weren’t enough that the scene disrupts our friendly relationship with Blume, the movie proceeds to shoot for a happy ending, which makes things all the more complicated. And I’ll bet that in 1973, Blume in Love got away with its happy ending – Blume and Nina reunited in Venice, planning to raise the baby that resulted from the rape. But the movie gets away with no such thing in 2007. If the scene’s questionable, perhaps casual attitude towards rape doesn’t shut contemporary viewers out completely, it gives way to a final act that’s got plenty to say about its characters, and gets counterintuitively clear about its own ambiguity.
I decided to write about Blume in Love when the friend who initially recommended it to me ten years ago emailed to ask if I’d watched the recently released DVD. “I'm not sure if I didn't actually watch the last 40 minutes of the film the first time I saw it,” he wrote, “or if I willfully forgot it.” He said that Mazursky treats the rape as “the equivalent of ruining dinner” and then “they have a baby, so it’s all good. The happy ending,” my friend said, “is not only sick logic, but a total copout.”
In a way, he’s right. It’s cringe-inducing to think that Mazursky thought his film had a happy ending. But in fact – at least today – Blume has a complicated ending. Our sense of affection for Blume gets dark during the rape scene, one that – to be fair – doesn’t rush things once they get uncomfortable. His actions are believable, as is his likeable performance in the rest of the film. How can these two things coexist? At the time of the film, perhaps they were allowed to coexist because the general mindset about rape – especially the marital variety – was so different. But today we have to ask ourselves how much we’re willing to let Blume (and Blume) get away with. Today, it’s not all good simply because they have a baby.
The rape scene is lodged into the story as a deux ex machina that’s supposed to get Blume low enough so that he can hoist himself back up, and – like it or not – lift Nina up with him. As troubling and misogynist as Mazursky’s treatment of rape is, his major sin is against the artfulness of Blume in Love: he takes this mood piece played in a minor key and imports into it something as tragic, terrifying, and drastic as rape as a convenient device. Still, despite its obliviousness to its own complications, the movie wins out from tonal juxtaposition. It sinks so deeply into its own rhythms – timed to Segal’s effortless performance – that the clash between its loping beat and jolting revelation makes the final act intriguing.
The finale of the Venice reunion today reads as strange, a little perverse, sneakily (and importantly) dark. Blume and Nina traipse off to the same place they honeymooned in, the same place in which he pitied himself unapologetically after their messy, ugly, sometimes childish breakup. Their happiness verges on dim-witted, and it hints that Blume never realizes he's done anything wrong: returning to the place he was so blatantly indulgent and self-pitying so that he can celebrate a new start is questionable at least.
The Venice conclusion is masquerading as a simplistic ending, and today feels like an outgrowth of what the movie's implying for a lot of its run time: it takes some blinders to love, some dumb luck to make it through middle age, and some willed ignorance to avoid imploding from the realization that things don't get easier when you're older. You never feel that much wiser, and that when something hurts, it just hurts, and that's all you know about it. When it feels good, it feels good, and that’s all you care about. Unfortunately, the movie treats the rape that way – it hurts her at first, then it feels good – but the movie’s troubling relationship with its most pivotal scene doesn't ruin the movie as much as complicate it, and makes you wonder just how likeable that bushy beard makes Blume.