Yesterday, PJ and I watched the 2007 documentary Chris and Don: A Love Story, which is about the 30-year relationship between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. Isherwood was, of course, a famous British writer who emigrated to the United States in 1939. Bachardy is an artist who specializes in portraits; his work is also familiar to anyone who follows queer art. It’s a great documentary.

Here’s the trailer:

As the trailer makes clear, the relationship between Isherwood and Bachardy began in controversy: the former was 30 years older than the latter. The age disparity in this relationship takes up a lot of the documentary’s time, but it’s not the only, or even the most, interesting part of this love story.

It is really interesting to hear about how Isherwood and Bachardy met. The latter was still a teenager, and Isherwood was already an important author who had started working for Hollywood films. It’s also interesting to see how beautiful Bachardy was as a teen — I can see why Isherwood was initially attracted to him. Here’s an early portrait of the couple:

Seeing an image like this and knowing that the two are lovers raises a lot of issues and questions in our culture. The film doesn’t shy away from these issues. But the really interesting part of this story is watching Bachardy narrate the rest of their lives together.

The film covers their early relationship, in which Isherwood seems to have molded his lover into the man he wanted him to be. Isherwood self-consciously seems to have adopted the role of parent in this relationship — excerpts from his diaries explicate this sense of himself as father figure. The film explores Bachardy’s sense of not belonging in Isherwood’s circle of friends, which included men like Tennessee Williams, W. H. Auden, and E. M. Forster.

This part of the documentary made me wonder if similar relationships that I’ve known have had a similar dimension. My first serious relationship was with someone 19 years older than me. Watching this documentary made me wonder if he saw himself as a parent and whether I saw myself as being molded. Or, if we didn’t see ourselves in this way, was it true anyway? Is that what I wanted from that relationship? Maybe. I do remember feeling out of place in his world sometimes. He comes from a very different background that I do. Seeing this movie made me rethink some of what I thought that relationship was about.

Then there’s the middle part of the film, which looks at Don’s early development as an artist and the couple’s negotiation of non-monogamy. The exploration of this part of their relationship was equally, if not more, fascinating. Bachardy talks about how the one thing they absolutely adhered to was honesty with one another. He also describes how they almost broke up in the ’60s when Bachardy thought that he was falling in love with someone else. This part of the film also made me think about myself a bit (have I become so self-centered that all films are about me now?!) I won’t go into all of the details here, but the movie made me think about my issues.

The third act of the film covers the last years of Isherwood’s life and what’s happened to Bachardy since his lover’s death in 1986. This part of the film also explores Bachardy’s artistic style and process. I really liked the discussion of art (Bachardy’s discussion of his art collection on the DVD’s special features is also well worth watching — I’d like to see a documentary just about this!) and how an artist works — the hours, the number of drawings or paintings he makes in one sitting, whether his models are clothed or nude, posing, etc. Perhaps most notably, this part of the film talks about Bachardy’s drawings of Isherwood as and after he died.

The palpable love that Bachardy shows for Isherwood both in his portraits and in his present narration is one of the most beautiful and poignant things I’ve ever seen in a gay documentary. I kept thinking how much I want to be like these men. To recall the narrative of PJ’s and my life together as we age and grow in life. To continue living a happy and comfortable life together surrounded by our commonalities. (I also covet their California home, which is amazing!)

Simply put, I love this documentary. By the end, I was crying a little, feeling how beautiful this relationship was and how fortunate the world is for having this record of queer love. So many images of gay life are negative or depressing or just sexual. This documentary offers a sensible and yet romantic view of what two men can share together.

There are questions I wish the film had explored a little more — not the least of which were sexual — but I think this movie does a wonderful job of presenting the facts of this relationship and letting them stand on their own. It’s a wonderful film about love, art, and homosexuality. I’m definitely going to have to buy a copy and start showing it to my Lesbian and Gay Lit classes.