Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Paul Mazursky is a key figure in the 70s Cinema Renaissance, which saw a new wave of personal pictures from directors working with relative freedom from the 'suits' in the studio offices. Mazursky hit it big with the New California lifestyle melodrama Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and went Fellini-crazy in Alex and Wonderland before making Blume in Love, an unusually perceptive look at marriage and divorce in Los Angeles circa 1973. Inspired casting and a sympathetic attitude turn a minor tale of marital woe into an idealistic quest for romance in the land of slippery commitment and flaky sex.
Stephen Blume (George Segal) goes to Venice to allow his ex-wife Nina (Susan Anspach) the space to mull over their relationship. Stephen remembers the whole story, the good and the bad: A Beverly Hills liberal romance, honeymoons on the Venetian canals, and years of happy marriage go 'pffft!' when Nina catches him with his secretary and files for divorce. Agonized, Stephen falls into a casual relationship with Arlene (Marsha Mason), all the while obsessed over Nina, the true love of his life. He's mortified when Nina takes up with musician-vagabond Elmo Cole (Kris Kristofferson), a guy so loveable even Stephen likes his company. Nina puts up as best she can with the obvious: Stephen is hanging around hoping against hope to win her back.
Blume in Love is an essentially benign meditation on jumbled relationships at a time when many subscribed to the notion that 'anything goes.' A director with a gentle touch, Paul Mazursky allows his ensemble of actors to approximate naturalistic human behavior, yet retains enough of a story structure to keep the narrative moving.
If there's satire here, it's filtered through a sensitivity that respects characters and places their feelings first. George Segal's Stephen Blume is a thoughtful divorce lawyer, not a clown attorney like the one Mazursky wrote for I Love You Alice B. Toklas. Blume has sympathy for his client Mrs. Cramer (Shelley Winters), who indeed amuses ("I want the house, I want the kids, I want all the money!") but is never used for cheap laughs. Stephen's the first to realize that cheating on Nina was a suicidal choice. The illusion of available girls and easy sex warped his judgment, he claims, a defense that seems all the more pitiful considering Blume's profession.
Susan Anspach's fascinating Nina is a New California Woman but also an individual with a conscience trying to do the right thing. She's a committed social worker, concerned for the farm workers and troubled that she isn't so pure of heart as to adopt an orphan from the Third World. But Nina's no pushover, as Stephen finds out when he's summarily kicked out of his own house.
Blume in Love gets ticklish when new relationships enter the scene. Stephen's sampling of the singles scene leads to a date eager to involve him in a foursome. He opts out of that but selfishly accepts no-strings sex from his friend Arlene (Marsha Mason). The self-possessed Arlene weathers Stephen's confused moods, gamely affirming that they're together only for the sex. But open-ended commitments stretch just so far, even in the years of Free Love. With great finesse, Marsha Mason suggests that underneath it all, Arlene is hoping for more.
Nina also finds a new partner. Just when she needs strength and calm, in drifts Kris Kristofferson's free 'n' easy Elmo. Elmo gets to sleep in a bed instead of his Microbus; Nina smokes a lot more dope and tries her hand at music. The painfully desperate Stephen finds excuses to worm his way back into his wife's house. Nina remains emotionally aloof, while Stephen must eat humble pie and pretend that the fact that she's sleeping with Elmo is okay by him. In a way, it's the only kind of atonement Stephen can offer that will mean anything: It kills him, but how else can he prove his sincerity?
The key scene has Elmo leading a semi-improvised song about "Chester the Goat", while Stephen chimes in as best he can. In terms of sane relationships and practical living, everything about the trio is a shambles. But all three are willing to relax and see what happens.
Then comes a scene that shouldn't be spoiled in a review. Blume in Love shatters a core tenet of Political Correctness by having Stephen commit an inexcusable crime. If Stephen's actions came before a judge he'd be in big trouble, and even the pacifistic Elmo is moved to punch Stephen in the eye. But Elmo and Nina know that their triangular relationship is too complex for legal definitions or PC rules. In real life, rigid codes for human relationships fall short because every individual case is different.
Blume in Love finishes as a soft-hearted tale about a man who becomes a lovesick wreck and finds forgiveness. Those who have lived through a similar personal crisis will recognize Mazursky's romantic ending as pure fairy tale sentiment. Adrift in the lover's paradise of Venice, Stephen sips espresso and veers between hope and despair. Mazursky does toss in some over-ripe ideas -- an extended nod to Visconti's Death in Venice, for one -- but the appropriateness of using Tristan and Isolde for a grand effect will have to be decided by the individual viewer. If it comes off as too corny, just pretend that the whole scene is a grandiose wish-fulfillment fantasy.
Warners' DVD of Blume in Love is a handsome enhanced transfer with excellent color; Bruce Surtees' warm cinematography uses a lot of long lenses. The "R" Rated picture features a lot of curiously non-exploitative nudity. The only extra is a faded original trailer that gives away far too many of the film's high points.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Blume in Love rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 5, 2007
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson