Chris and Don: A Love Story

Tina Mascara, Guido Santi
Don Bachardy, Christopher Isherwood, Leslie Caron, John Boorman
The Setup: 
Documentary about the relationship between Christopher Isherwood and his lover Don Bachardy.

My friend and I had both read a fair amount of Isherwood, as had his book club friends who accompanied us, and this had gotten fairly good reviews, so off we all went.

Do you know who Christopher Isherwood is? He is a gay writer who grew up in Britain, knew Auden, then moved to Germany in the mid-20s. He was there during the Nazi’s rise to power, and recorded many of his experiences in Berlin Stories, which featured the character Sally Bowles, which was adapted into the musical and film Cabaret. He then moved to Hollywood, where he hob-nobbed with the elite while studying Eastern religion, pumped out further novels, and there ya go.

The movie starts off with a little intro by Don, now in his 70s and a painter, then quickly tracks back to give Isherwood’s story, then begins with Don as a boy. Don and his older brother met Isherwood on the beach when Don was 16. Isherwood was fooling around with the older brother, but a few years later the brother has the first of what would become “his nervous breakdowns,” and eventually turn out to be slightly schizophrenic. At 18, Don began fooling around with Chris, 30 years his senior. Toward the beginning of the film he says “Chris could be looked at as the villain of the piece, since he took this young boy, twisted him to his will, and introduced him to all these evil, wicked things—and I loved it!”

They have a period of bliss, and continue growing closer together. In here is introduced these characters they adopted for themselves and communicated through in notes and letters, with Chris as a horse and Don as a cat. This theme, including little animations of these characters, will continue throughout the film.

At one point they go to Tangier, where they hang out with Paul Bowles and do drugs. Don has a massive paranoid experience, which is especially disturbing to him, since he fears going insane like his brother. They say [the voice of Isherwood is provided by his published diaries] that the experience brought them much closer together. Soon Don has adopted Chris’ British accent and mannerisms, to the point where people feel like he has become a little clone. Chris also realizes that Don is dazzled by the movie stars that he knows, so he ups their mutual hobnobbing quite a bit. They discuss how at the time they were the only openly gay couple at many of the parties they attended.

Then begins the first of some rough patches. First, Don feels that he is seen as just a hanger-on to Chris, and not regarded as an interesting person in his own right. This is handled well as Chris encourages him to go to art school, and eventually he has a one-man gallery show in London, which pretty much alleviates his feelings, as he now has accomplishments of his own. A few years on, they deal with Don’s wish to go out and fool around with others, which they call “mousing,” based on his cat persona. They both go out and have little affairs, which helps let off some of the pressure of their relationship and their age difference.

There is an interesting patch after Don has his gallery show and has established his own persona—it occurs to him that he could leave Chris. I found this interesting as, the way it’s presented, it doesn’t rise out of any particular dissatisfaction with the relationship, but just from the fact that Don COULD leave. I’m sure it also has to do with the fact that Don never had any other relationship, and was wondering what else was out there. Anyway, Chris slackens the line, lets him explore, and eventually they get through it. One admires both of them for the way they are able to navigate these difficult patches while keeping their relationship intact.

Eventually Chris succumbs to prostate cancer, and there is a moving final section where Don shows his pen-and-ink drawings that he executed of him during his final months. They would get together every day and Don would draw Chris, documenting his final days in some quite good paintings. On the day Chris died, Don spent the day painting the corpse, which, after painting him every day up until then, only seems natural.

The film is intriguing and moving, but afterward there is a tiny tinge of “Why did I need to see that?” because all it does is tell their story and not much more. I’m sure it will have a lot of resonance for those in older-younger relationships and fans of Isherwood, but other than that it just kind of tells an interesting story without much larger importance. Which is fine, but perhaps not something you need to pay to see in the theater, when it would hold up fine on cable, or reading an article about it would deliver much of the same information. Then again, it has a lot of value simply by documenting this interesting gay relationship in such depth.

Before the movie my friend and his book club buddies were talking about reading Christopher and His Kind, one of Isherwood’s memoirs, and coming away with a somewhat negative view of Isherwood as a somewhat of a self-centered user without much connection to anyone apart from what he can get from them. The movie is of course not very critical of Chris, but what he and his friends said afterward is that the movie didn’t negate any of their thoughts from before, but that the positive and negative could exist comfortably side by side, which means the movie allows the viewer a lot of space to construct one’s own view of the characters, and doesn’t impose it’s own views emphatically.

Ultimately a good and interesting documentary, and a valuable intimate view of one older-younger gay relationship, but at the same time something one could entirely live without.

Should you watch it: 

If you are a big Isherwood fan or are in an age-disparate gay relationship.