Testament Of Love : A Film by Jon Garcia

The Falls Trilogy : Films by Jon Garcia

Part Two: TESTAMENT OF LOVE [2013]

Plot spoilers and some mildly explicit language

Jon Garcia’s epic, intense, love story really begins to accelerate and take flight in ‘Testament Of Love’. He moves the characters into adult territory, with a mature story about responsibility, family loyalty, and the isolation and the trauma brought about by self-denial in an attempt to please ones own family. The primary focus of the film follows Chris on a journey into his own private hell, with R J in hot pursuit, in an attempt to rescue Chris and convince him of the folly of going against his natural grain; existing within a heterosexual marriage and enduring the false heterosexual identity which has been forced upon him.

The Falls’ concluded with a voice-over by R J, indicating that he was setting out on the road to visit his lover Chris in the hope of resuming their friendship, and perhaps, reignite their sexual relationship, after it had been so horribly and prematurely terminated.

R J’s voice-over at the beginning of ‘Testament Of Love’, is spoken as one who has experienced all the joys of same sex love, in a rite of passage that has transformed him bodily, and consciously, into a man who knows what he is, and who and what he wants. R J’s quotation from “Ecce Homo: Ruminations on a Theology of My Queer Body” by Connell O’Donovan, is highly erotic, romantic and spiritual. The words convey R J’s passionate belief that he and Chris are one in body, and soul.

The intensity of these words sets the mood for the entire film. This is to be a drama where feelings and passions are laid bare. Soul-searching, conflict, guilt (religious or otherwise) and finally redemption are all played out here with great emotional power but without violence (with the exception of one scene of desperation on the part of R J in his motel room on his last night in Salt Lake City).

I’m naturally drawn to stories in films like this, which have an almost elemental force about them. I enjoy the intensity of romantic themes and the use of colour and locations which emulate and capture the mood of a scene. ‘Testament Of Love’, has very definite echoes of some of Alfred Hitchcock’s later colour films and also some of Woody Allen’s very serious dramas.

The ever present themes of wrestling and the journey through life are revisited here, but a new one, abandonment, takes centre stage.

R J’s monologue reveals that he and Chris did in fact hook-up again and spend a year on the road in a mutual state of loving bliss. Their story resumes five years later. The actors have matured in real time between the filming of ‘The Falls’ and ‘Testament Of Love’ and this helps in making the leap of five years feel authentic.

R J is in the process of writing their love story in the form of a novel, which we observe in a series of flashbacks to his and Chris’s younger days. There is an upsetting jolt in the narrative; the revelation that, after their road trip, Chris deliberately cut R J out of his life and that five years have since passed. R J is revisiting in his imagination, the sweet kisses he shared with his mission companion Chris. As early on as this, we know that R J is still in love with Chris (or the idea of their love) and that he must find out the reasons why he was abandoned and whether or not there will be a chance for them to be reconciled, disregarding all that has taken place in their separate lives in the interim period.

There is a montage of Chris dating Emily, getting married and enjoying the company of their child. It is upbeat and accompanied by an uplifting song, ‘I’m In Your Church At Night’ by Active Child, and it concisely conveys, the path Chris has taken. Under pressure from his dominating father, he has reformed since the ‘error’ of his gay liaison with R J and is now on the ‘righteous path’; though he is, in reality, way over his head in the quagmire.

R J also, has a new lover. He has satisfied his need for the basic human requirements and has found regular sex and a domestic existence in the company of another man, Paul, but Paul is not life partner material, and R J is not in love, in fact, can not love him. Paul, is loyal and loving – a thoroughly lovely guy – but too needy and desperate in his attempts to make R J love him back. R J’s body language when he’s around Paul is negative and he is unresponsive to Paul’s attentions, which indicates that he’s deliberately keeping himself at a physical and emotional distance and, where possible, avoiding intimate connection.

The breakfast scene between Paul and R J (after R J has had to wrestle Paul out of bed so that he can get to work on time) is beautifully understated and natural. Paul is standing casually butt naked while they breakfast but the nudity does not seem gratuitously deliberate. It gives the scene an atmosphere of domestic reality, but Paul’s, “I love you”, as R J leaves for work, is so weak as to be pathetic and is either inaudible to, or deliberately ignored by R J. Paul is being isolated and he feels it.

When R J actually does arrive late to work and interrupts the staff meeting, the spectacled female colleague (rolling her eyes at his lateness and agitated by his intrusive phone ringtone) with her uptight, disapproving attitude is a direct reminder of Elder Harris and his brittle personality in ‘The Falls’.

Rodney’s untimely death will bring R J and Chris together again. The night before his departure, R J’s prayers are interrupted by fond memories of kissing Chris. R J’s loneliness, longing and isolation is beautifully presented here. By comparison, it is plainly obvious to the viewer that when Chris is departing his wife and daughter for the funeral, there is a look of calm expectation on his face, perhaps at the thought that he might see R J again. But, on the contrary, both during and after the service, Chris deliberately tries to avoid R J. R J is unhappy about this and confounded by Chris’s behaviour.

Chris is icily remote and wears dark sunglasses (which he uses as a shield) that give him the appearance of a C I A agent, in what is a deliberate attempt to intimidate R J and keep him at a distance. R J confronts Chris and Chris reluctantly agrees to meet and talk before going their separate ways. A regular pattern of suspense followed by relief, begins here.

During their uncomfortable conversation in the hotel dining room that evening, “You’re married?”, is R J’s hurt and somewhat baffled response to Chris’s unexpected announcement. Chris’s assumption that R J is in a relationship with a woman, slaps him back in the face when he asks of R J, “What’s her name?” and R J replies, “Paul.” The suspense is maintained in the following scene when R J offers to walk Chris up to his room. Chris deliberately side-tracks R J’s attempt to extend their conversation. He bars the way into his room, denying R J access, and, to R J’s calm astonishment, he is offered nothing more than a friendly handshake. Chris terminates the conversation before it becomes intimate by closing the door in R J’s face. This act widens the gulf that is between them to monstrous proportions, when literally it is just the thin wood of a door which divides them.

Back in his own room, R J opens the note from Rodney, which Rodney’s mother had handed to him at the funeral. It also contains a joint from Rodney for R J to smoke in remembrance of him. It is a blessed relief to R J at this point in the film and R J derives some comfort from it, while Chris, alone in his room, slowly sinks into his mattress in shock and despair.

On returning home, Chris finds he is unable to make love with his wife Emily, so, privately, before the bathroom mirror, he savagely masturbates to relieve himself. The scene is expertly directed and brilliantly acted out by Benjamin Farmer. What Chris is imagining during it, we can only guess at. His face, reflected in the mirror has a look of self hatred that is frightening. It is as though he’s going slowly out of his mind. All of his pent up homosexual feelings are released and exposed in the act.

Back in Seattle, R J, toying with the small plastic Mormon figures on his work desk, is an indication that he can not rest or forget Chris until he has spoken to him openly about their past relationship and try to find some kind of closure. Also, R J hasn’t responded at all well to Paul’s warm welcome since he returned home, so, it’s now or never. He has to make a clean break.

Why is it in films, that when a person decides to break up with someone they do it in the most uncomfortable and public of places; a restaurant?

Paul’s hushed hysteria that he’s being ditched is very well handled here. Paul’s justification speech before leaving R J and all the points he raises are valid and it leaves R J ashamed. Rightly so! But, they were not marriage material and now that Paul is out of the picture R J can fully concentrate on Chris.

R J behaves like a stalker with an obsession about his lost love: surprising Chris by turning up at his house uninvited. Very much like Scottie does, when he follows Judy Barton up to her hotel room in Alfred Hitchcock’s film, ‘VERTIGO’.

Next, there is the scenario of the eternal triangle. Chris has no choice but to introduce R J to Emily, who welcomes R J into their house for dinner and a sleep-over. But, this triangle is not destined to be eternal: it will break under pressure very soon and turn Chris and Emily’s ordered existence into turmoil. It is at this point; halfway into the film that the roller coaster ride begins. It brought to mind Alfred Hitchcock’s example of how the elements of suspense and relief in his films are comparable “to riding the ‘Switchback Railway’” (roller coaster): the cinema audience gets relief from the tension of a scene they’re engaged in, in the same way the passengers on the roller coaster ride do, when they let out a scream on rushing down the track after the slow, suspenseful, climb to the top. The emotional tension constantly escalates and dips throughout the latter half of ‘Testament Of Love’.

Emily is a beautifully written character. She is elegant, completely engaging, and a genuinely lovely person: Chris has likened her to an angel. This makes it all the more devastating to the audience and we feel for Emily when she accidentally discovers Chris’s true sexual nature. Hannah Barefoot, the actress who plays Emily, has the type of beauty and poise that Ella Raines and Katharine Hepburn had in their 1940s films. The camera naturally loves her, and that also goes for Nick Ferrucci as R J, who at times bears an uncanny resemblance to both the masculine Robert Ryan in ‘CROSSFIRE’ melded with the elfin feminine features of young Rita Tushingham in ‘A TASTE OF HONEY’. Benjamin Farmer as Chris, has an other-worldly Celtic beauty which glows on screen.

During an arranged meeting in ‘Memory Grove’ Chris berates R J for his recklessness. It turns into a showdown with the pair hurling Bible quotes at each other and R J insisting, “Chris … you’re not straight”. Chris soon relents, and, sneaking out of the house one night, he visits R J in his motel room and by way of an apology and to break the ice, he brings take-out Thai food and they reminisce. “Life is a journey”, Chris states, and he clearly hates the road he’s taken.

The colour red comes into the visual quite vividly and regularly from here on. The neon sign outside R J’s motel room window is red. There’s something sleazy in the aspect of what motel rooms are generally used for and the use of red is appropriate, for it is here that Chris will, in time, visit R J for sex. Nothing sexual happens at this point and the ex-lovers part amicably. Alone in his motel room, R J gives voice to his thought that, “maybe this is the closure I’ve come looking for.”

The closely-cropped head shots designed throughout most of the second half of the film during key speeches are expertly juxtaposed with extra-long shots. My first example, is during the scene where Chris is left alone with his friend Aaron after sending their wives out to buy ice-cream. Aaron insinuates that Chris is gay, and when Chris pretends otherwise, Aaron then confirms he knows that Chris is gay, and that this had been told to him by R J and Chris’s former mission leader, Elder Harris.

The aspect of the camera, zooming in on the returned wives and the increased volume of their chatter as they enter the tense scene between Chris and Aaron, who appear to their wives like conspirators who have been caught off guard … engaged in what? … is a technical highlight.

My second example, is of Chris and Emily, filmed as though they’re being literally subsumed into their clinical family home environment. People oblivious of one another or of anything going on outside of their own thoughts. The drama and tension within the relationships in ‘Testament Of Love’ is heightened by the close-ups. The isolation that Emily feels is filmed starkly and from a long way off. She might be an individual inhabiting a room, or alone in a diner, like the solitary people in the paintings of Edward Hopper.

Emily is due to get her promotional red jacket at work; yet another red. Chris takes advantage of her absence and visits R J: again it is night. The ensuing declaration by Chris of his sham of a marriage and his unendurable inner pain and turmoil is the rawest speech put on film in a long time and Benjamin Farmer’s performance here is shockingly and heartbreakingly real. Chris reveals he has undergone reparative therapy to correct his sexuality at the insistence of his father; a despicable request for any parent to make of an offspring and a terrible thing for anyone to have to endure.

Chris’s removal of his wedding ring is a significantly symbolic statement. He’s both betraying Emily and showing R J the respect he deserves. It’s inevitable they make love at this point. After Chris has bared his soul to R J the ensuing love scene is one of torrid, urgent, passion. Five years worth of unburdening release.

The curtains have been drawn by R J prior to sex but the invasive red light filters very effectively through them onto the lovers. Red for passion and lust. Red for danger. [The flashing red neon sign outside the apartment window in Alfred Hitchcock’s, ‘ROPE’ when the gay murderers are exposed] The red of a traffic light signalling STOP! The words in the song, ‘Once I Believed’ by Haywood, playing over their love making, are apt and fit the mood of the scene very well. The camera, focusing mainly on R J’s head and torso leaves the sexual acts being performed on him to the imagination, and the scene is all the better for it. The pair drift off to sleep in each others arms, satisfied, as the bluesy love song ends.

This motel room scene, and the one following, where Emily, while driving home from her ‘red jacket debut’ spots Chris’s car in the motel car-park, is my personal favourite part of the film.

The first scene: the build up in tension during Chris’s confession and their subsequent love making, plays like an homage to the love scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘VERTIGO’; but in reverse. R J [Scottie Ferguson] has been seeking out his lost love, and, on finding him, has acted as the catalyst that successfully transforms Chris the stern, distant Mormon [Madeleine Elster] back to Chris his earthy lover-companion [Judy Barton]. The love scene in ‘VERTIGO’ is bathed in electric-green neon light, emanating from the sign outside Judy’s hotel room window and the room is ghostly green when Madeleine is recreated out of Judy and born again in Scottie’s eyes. When Chris is reborn, Jon Garcia very rightly and aptly used red. The transformation scenes in ‘Testament Of Love’ and ‘VERTIGO’, are both highly erotic products of directors with romantic personalities.

The action in the following scene is where Emily’s new journey begins. It’s going to be a bumpy ride; far more so than the tram-lines she crosses as she does a U-turn to double check whether that was actually Chris’s car in the motel parking lot she has just driven by. She is drawn to that red neon light like a moth to a flame. Parked in her car – Chris’s number plate having checked out positive – instinctively, her gaze is transfixed on a certain room. She is immediately suspicious and in what is an incredibly moving and subtly silent performance, through Emily’s searching, desperate eyes and her minutest expressions we see all the dreaded thoughts rushing through her brain. The plaintive strings on the soundtrack accompanying her voyeurism as she witnesses R J and Chris kissing before parting, echo her inner feelings. Her eyes hold defeat, sadness, emptiness but above all a kind of longing: for what she is witnessing is a far greater communion than she has ever experienced with Chris.

Emily’s breakdown at work is masterfully understated both in acting and directing. Her need to confront Chris and get everything out in the open hastens the action back into family and religious territory. “Can we pray this away?” she states. No, this is an earthly matter and Chris’s direct, gut-wrenchingly brutal, but honest reply, “The feelings that I have for him (R J); I can never have for a woman”, is the hammer driving the final nail into the coffin on the death of their marriage.

The sound and lighting of this scene is immaculately placed. Outside, the rain is heavy and persistent. The sound of water running along guttering and down pipes increases the loneliness and hopelessness of the interior and the light falling on Chris’s very white skin gives him an almost supernatural beauty and presence as he makes his statement. [Woody Allen’s films, ‘SEPTEMBER’ and ‘INTERIORS’ spring to mind during this scene] Emily’s ultimatum to Chris, is that he tells the truth to his family.

Chris’s coming out is a surprisingly calm affair conducted more as a family counselling session; a discussion, rather than a histrionic or melodramatic outpouring. Bolstered by the presence of R J, Chris expresses proudly and confidently, that he is in love with him. Emily has the appearance of a cornered Vixen and is the only person to lose control of her emotions in a room of confused and shocked people. Chris’s sister giving verbal support to Chris equally balances out those ‘for’ and ‘against’, with Emily trapped in the middle of what is a beautifully choreographed scene which then, seamlessly blends into the following scene by a tremendously clever and spot-on cut, from R J leaving the family ‘outing’ (there’s irony in the framed statement ‘Families Are Forever’ which he passes by on leaving) to R J opening his motel room door to admit Chris later that day, where Chris finds solace in R J’s arms.

The final few scenes were constructed more like theatrical tableaux.

R J’s father, Elder Smith, sides with his son during Noah Merrill’s angry tirade over the telephone. This isn’t just paternal loyalty but proof that Elder Smith is comfortable, not only with R J being gay, but with his own personal growth on the journey he is making alongside R J. Elder Smith is a great role model and the speech he delivers to Chris’s father was written specifically to instruct and inspire parents to support their gay sons and daughters. His effusive support of R J is counterbalanced by Noah Merrill’s devastation and after Noah terminates the call abruptly, the sadness in Noah’s one word “Chris”, is likely to produce goosebumps.

Back at the motel, R J realises the enormity of the damage he’s caused and as much as he needs his heavenly father at that moment, he can not ‘see’ Him or find God there to help him, in spite of desperate attempts to pray and commune with Him. R J’s wrecking of the motel room (devised by Jon and Nick) was a brilliant idea. For over five years R J has been like a pressure cooker about to burst and now he does, injuring the palms of his hands in the process and cutting his Mormon vest to use as bandage. The symbolism here is one of the stigmata. R J is on the verge of losing his faith, and, with the feeling that his heavenly father has forsaken him, he bins his vest as easily as if it were his faith.

R J and Chris’s future together is now in the lap of the Gods; if indeed there are any. R J has to take a chance and do something which will either cement the lovers together or have the catastrophic effect of tearing them apart forever.

Chris’s rendering of the Celtic style hymn at his parents anniversary dinner is poignant and moving. He might be singing of R J’s love saving him, and not God’s. R J turns up, unexpected, like the spectre at the feast, to set his plan in motion, but firstly he asks Chris to forgive him for what he’s about to do. He has to declare their love to the assembled guests and with a passionate kiss he outs Chris to those congregated. That kiss will test their bond and it is in the affirmative because Chris kisses him back with the same passion. The thread of saliva that visibly links their lips when their lips part is symbolic of the tie that eternally binds them.

Chris’s mother, offers her love and parental support in one of the most memorable and moving speeches in ‘Testament Of Love’, vowing that even if her husband and their heavenly father won’t accept Chris, she will. Another key message to mothers out there to support their gay children, no matter what, even if the fathers won’t.

Chris finally stands up to his father, who is about to disown Chris. The moving speech, where Chris expresses his love for his father and confirms how he has always done everything to please him out of respect for him, is solidly written. Chris needs to convince his father that although everything from there on will change, Chris is going to be alright, but he needs his earthly father with him on his new journey. Noah Merrill’s response, that all he wants is for Chris to be happy, is an encouraging start to their new, father and son relationship. Everything that any parent needs to know on how to adapt positively to change when a child of any age comes out, is in this film; in those two separate conversations Chris has with his mother and father.

The ending montage is of R J back home in Seattle, expectantly looking out (for Chris) from his apartment window, and of Chris and Emily’s amicable separation at the commencement of their individual journeys. R J’s voice-over is full of hope that he will be reunited with Chris, because Chris has written saying, “I forgive you”, a confirmation that R J will be seeing Chris again at some point in the not-too-distant future, but the question is, when?

Once again, the ending is left open to the imagination of the viewer. A kind of cliff-hanger, giving us hope that R J and Chris will, one day, be united forever.

Copyright © Russell Liney 2019

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One thought on “Testament Of Love : A Film by Jon Garcia

  1. Russell’s homage to ‘Testament of Love’ is a passionate and powerful reading experience. Very well written! The depths and challenges of the various relationships within the film are well observed. I loved reading it and it has inspired me to see the film.

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