Human Affairs is nominally about the effect of an impending surrogate birth on the childless couple involved, but its title points to its far more panoramic scope. Bracketed by decades-spanning sequences of still photographs, Human Affairs visually and thematically places its three principal characters within the life and humanity that exists around them, seemingly impervious to their presence.
Sidney (Dominic Fumusa), a playwright, and Lucinda (Kerry Condon), a theater actress, are a married couple who have been having trouble conceiving a child on their own. To achieve this, they employ a surrogate, Genevieve (Julie Sokolowski), originally from France but now living in Vermont. Genevieve is invited to live with the couple in New York for a weekend as she begins the fourth month of her pregnancy.
It's a busy and stressful time for Sidney and Lucinda, as they're both involved with rehearsals for Sidney's soon-to-open play, which Lucinda is starring in. Unbeknownst to Lucinda, Sidney has been in regular communication with Genevieve throughout her surrogacy, which appears to have begun as a friendly correspondence, but has crossed the line into one of a much more romantic nature. Sidney and Genevieve sneak around behind Lucinda's back for encounters that become increasingly furtive and fraught. Genevieve grows more frustrated, indeed unhinged, over Sidney's vacillation and reluctance to come clean to his wife about all this. Sidney, for his part, struggles to come to terms with his conflicted feelings, and to find a way to extricate himself from the mess he's created. It all inevitably sets the stage for a climactic conflict among all the members of this emotional triangle.
Ironically for a film about a married couple who are theater professionals, Human Affairs has a rather shaky sense of dramaturgy. There's a surfeit of exposition yet a paucity of plotting, making character and dramatic development often seem perfunctory, almost arbitrary. This would sink most other films, but the fact that the ultimate scope of this one extends far beyond its three main characters makes this flaw a very minor one in the grand scheme of things.
In many scenes, even ones with the most dramatic import, we are made visually aware that the story of its three characters is but one of a countless number of others occurring around them. In this sense, its main setting of New York City proves an ideal one, as its non-stop bustling nature of diverse humanity weaves itself in between and around the drama in the lives of Sidney, Lucinda, and Genevieve, lending an almost cosmic sense of the smallness and the ultimate insignificance of this drama within the sea of humanity which envelops it. To borrow a phrase from Casablanca, the lives of these three don't seem to amount to a hill of beans.
Except, of course, they do, and so much more than that. The poignancy of the film's epilogue, which spans decades following the events of the few days covered by most of the film, drives this point home with potent emotional force. Though in the grander cosmic sense, individual lives may seem insignificant, to the people living these lives, they're anything but. The concluding montage of still photographs, capturing the joys, sorrows, and quotidian mundanity of ordinary lives, possess a heart-rending beauty. Although it's these particular three people we follow, an equally lovely montage could be made with any other three humans. Human Affairs thus ennobles its title, which points to its generous and empathetic vision.
These themes are beautifully rendered by its fine performances, especially that of Julia Sokolowski, previously seen in Bruno Dumont's Hadewijch, whose inimitable presence and movements are riveting, eloquently conveying both the vulnerable delicacy and the raw, volcanic emotion of Genevieve.
Birns also gets a major assist from the ace cinematography of Sean Price Williams, who in recent years has become the MVP crew member of lower-budgeted independent features. His simultaneously raw and refined aesthetic works wonders here, employing multiple formats: HD, 8mm film, 35mm still photography. The lattices of light, reflective surfaces, and the sea of humanity surrounding the principal characters lends a sensual visual viscosity to every frame.
Human Affairs is now playing at the Slamdance Film Festival, and has its second screening on Jan. 23 at 3:30pm.