Hyper-verbal, yet still cinematically expressionistic, adult relationship dramas are unfortunately hard to find in movie theaters nowadays.
Why “unfortunately”? Because, full disclosure:
I fucking love hyper-verbal, yet still cinematically expressionistic, adult relationship dramas.
So keep this confession in mind when venturing forth into my unadulterated praise for Brian Cano’s Permission. In the spirit of a movie that relentlessly probes questions regarding romantic relationships, here’s another question:
Why did I italicize “unadulterated” above?
Answer: not only to indicate that the movie is somewhat about adultery, but also to reflect the subtextual level on which a lot of its thoughts pertaining to courtship and coupling are communicated.
Dan Stevens and Rebeca Hall (the latter of whom also produced; god bless her for using her indie cred to shepherd such talky, uncommercial, adult fare to the big screen) play a couple in their 30s on the brink of a marriage proposal who, facing that precipice, start reassessing the strength of their relationship. Are they taking its pros for granted, or have they grown too complacent in ignoring its cons? The resulting plot that unfolds out of this premise — they agree to sleep around to double-check that what they have is indeed better than other alternatives, because how is anyone ever supposed to know that for sure — may sound like a sitcom, or a romantic comedy. But thanks to a seamless melding of resonant writing, directing (both courtesy of Cano), acting (Hall continues to prove she’s one of the best actors working today), and the rest of the thoughtful mis-en-scene, it becomes a deeply intellectually-engaging two hours.
The italicization of play in the paragraph above once again bears further significance, because the concept of play is important to the movie on a variety of levels. Obviously playing around sexually and emotionally is a major factor, as is the fact that the words we use — the primary, but by no means only, mode of discourse in Permission— matter. Think about how the phrase “playing around” equates cheating to play — as if fidelity is more like work — whereas “playing house” paints faithful commitment as superficial. On a more meta-level, the movie’s aware of the roles elements like artifice, performance, fiction, and illusion play in relationships.
Nearly every scene presents and then unpacks these sorts of ideas that organically grow out of the narrative, including:
How do we know that our current relationship is the best we could have, or even good enough, especially since no one can perfectly remember what their lives were like, or even who they were, years before their long-term relationship began? What’s the difference between settling down and just settling? Is companionship different than contentment, which itself might be different than real happiness (whatever that is)? Should relationships have boundaries, or should all relationships be able to sustain any and all conditions, even polygamy, thus justifying testing them through such experiments with infidelity? And should there be boundaries in terms of how much we know about each other? Does addressing EVERYTHING in a relationship help or hurt?
Permission unravels these questions through subtly expressionistic moments, starting with its very first image: a bored dog, ostensibly watching Hall and Stevens have tame, but seemingly enjoyable, sex. It’s a healthy — perhaps too healthy — dose of domesticity, a far cry from the passionate animalism that defines good sex for some (maybe even for Hall and Stevens’ characters, even if they’re not yet aware of it). If your doggy style doesn’t even arouse a dog, then is it actually good sex? Also, is the dog bored, or just content?
And then there’s the scene where Hall and her side-beau debate whether romantic feelings, if they’re legitimately felt in the moment, can ultimately be considered fake if they’re predicated on one party keeping something important from the other. It’s not a coincidence that the conversation takes place on a stage. To be specific, it takes place on the stage of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House (yay BAM!).
Permission‘s a low-key New York City movie, by which I mean it’s a part of a long lineage of celluloid concoctions that capture the spirit and disarray of being in love in the Big City, utilizing some of its choicest locations to comment on the affairs in this affair, much like how BAM — a place where fantasies are performed every night — colors their aforementioned discussion. Unlike so many other movies that splice together for cinematic effect landmarks that are in actuality located far apart (looking at you, Birdman), Permission adheres to the geographic reality of NYC; when Hall and her man meet outside BAM, they’re really sitting on the real steps of BAM that are really located outside of that real theatre in real life. Permission’s location scouts going out of their way to find real spots that naturally facilitate a similar effect further amplifies the truth of its observations.
And yet, for those aware of Rebeca Hall and Dan Stevens’ real nationalities, the criticism could be lobbed that their (to these ears, pitch-perfect) American accents rob Permission of some of that truthful authenticity. But I’d argue that this surface performativity emphasizes the aforementioned centrality of play to Permission’s proceedings. How often do couples manipulate words to mask something they don’t want to reveal to their other half? Multiple accents existing in one body suggests a multiplicity of identity; do we totally know who we’re with, and even ourselves, in a relationship? How much is unavoidably kept from the other person? And, how much do we deliberately keep for, and from, ourselves? And, and, how many people lose a sense of their identity separate from their life partner?
To impose a more positive perspective on these questions, if an individual is capable of multiple identities, then they, in theory (God, and Permission, know the following is usually easier
said typed than done), should be able to change themselves to fulfill the ever-changing desires of their companion. Even so, other people inherently pose a threat to the stability of a relationship, because who knows if they might prove to be more compatible if given a spin. And what else is art — the ultimate playground of fiction in pursuit of truth— about, and what else does it make us think about, than the lives of others, and the implications they have on our own?
All of this may seem pedantic and overwrought, but that’s the beauty of art whose depths of truth get so lodged in your psyche; Permission provides the bait, and us fish swim away with it. Needless to specify, the layers to its themes are endless, and endlessly relevant to anyone who’s ever been in a relationship, AKA the vast majority of people on Earth.