A sad-eyed young woman wanders aimlessly through a fluorescent-lit department store. On the soundtrack Ben E. King moans, seemingly incongruously to the banal visuals: "I cry my life away ... it's all over." But in Ira Sach's downbeat character study, now available on DVD, we soon learn that for our idle shopper, loneliness and suburban ennui are inextricably bound to the plaintive growl of 1960s R&B.
For Laura (Dina Korzun), a recent Russian immigrant, shares a stuck-in-the-past ranch house with her lover Allen James (Rip Torn) and their young son. James is an R&B music producer and songwriter, an aging big fish in a small pond. While he still stomps around in the residual golden light, Laura's left adrift in her comfortable new life. She's an outsider in Memphis' tight-knit, backward-looking community.
But it's better than the life she left, she thinks, tempering her sadness with white wine and resignation. That is, until Laura is jolted into consciousness by the arrival of James' estranged adult son, Michael (Darren Burrows), with whom she begins an affair.
Forty Shades of Blue, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2005, is clearly an American work. But as a character study, it often feels European: The pace is languid, almost hypnotic. The film feels exquisitely painful, yet it's never melodramatic; many scenes are ordinary moments that nonetheless illuminate Laura's disconnect or James' casual neglect of her. The acting is naturalistic, and it's exhilarating to watch Torn tackle a tough, nuanced role again. Sachs ably weaves melancholy throughout, from his repeated framing of Laura alone and the sad soul songs that punctuate the soundtrack, to the flat, dull spaces of suburban Memphis.
It runs beneath the lovers' tangle, but Forty Shades is an elegy too for another time, when the music mattered, now just recalled by old men in sentimental drunken reveries. As James blathers at a testimonial dinner about how there was "a moment in time that happened in Memphis that was pure magic, when the music of the black and the white came together," the young people in the room fidget and look bored. Even James' glory days are another love affair that didn't last; it's like the old song goes, "It's all over."