The film’s title is a hopeful manifesto, a wish of the heart stated as a law of physics. “Love is a stream—it’s continuous,” the unhappily divorced Sarah Lawson (Gena Rowlands) tells her uncomprehending psychiatrist early on in John Cassavetes’s last masterpiece, Love Streams (1984). Later, in one of several fruitless phone calls to her ex-husband, Jack (Seymour Cassel), Sarah poses this conviction as a dare: “Do you believe that love is a continuous stream?” Jack ignores her question, but his words and actions have made clear that love often does the opposite of stream—it stops. Cassavetes would direct one more film before his death in 1989—the comedy Big Trouble (1986), which he took over after production was under way and subsequently disowned—but Love Streams is universally considered his valediction, a final reckoning with the subject that for him loomed larger than all others. “I have a one-track mind,” Cassavetes says in the documentary “I’m Almost Not Crazy . . . ,” shot on the set of Love Streams. “That’s all I’m interested in, is love.” Philosophy, from the Greek philosophia, literally means love of wisdom or knowledge; Cassavetes, in that same interview, inverts the etymology, defining it as the “study of love.” “To have a philosophy,” he declares, “is to know how to love and to know where to put it.”
More than a culmination of Cassavetes’s obsessions, Love Streams—based on a play by Ted Allan that Cassavetes staged, in somewhat different form, in Los Angeles in 1981—is a palimpsest through which many of his other movies are visible. Sarah and Jack suggest older, life-bruised versions of the agitated characters Rowlands and Cassel played in the opposites-attract comedy Minnie and Moskowitz (1971). The central relationship in Love Streams—between Sarah, a woman reeling from the rejection of her husband and daughter, and her brother, Robert Harmon (Cassavetes), a dissolute novelist who has organized his life to avoid the possibility of a lasting human relationship—harkens back to the sibling ties in Shadows (1959). Their reunion takes place in Robert’s big Hollywood Hills house, which was also the married Rowlands and Cassavetes’s real-life home, a vividly lived-in location for several other Cassavetes films, most notably Faces (1968). In a body of work in which gender roles always matter, Sarah is, in more ways than one, the ultimate Cassavetes woman, and Robert the ultimate Cassavetes man. Sarah, an emotional live wire, is kin to Mabel Longhetti in A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and Myrtle Gordon in Opening Night (1977), women who struggle valiantly with their capacity and need for love, with “how to love” and “where to put it.” A boozy charmer in a rumpled tux, with a knack for turning all interactions into transactions, Robert is a more cultured brother to the suave strip-club owner Cosmo Vitelli in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), or an alternate-world variant of the suburbanites in Husbands (1970), more successful and even more hollow.
Totalizing the moment-to-moment unpredictability of Cassavetes’s cinema, Love Streams creates a world of permanent flux. The film opens in extremis, midargument, with a woman yelling at Robert (“You’re a coward! You’re disgusting!”) while he paces about with a little girl—presumably the woman’s daughter, maybe his as well—slung over his shoulder. In the next scene, Robert strides through his house, introducing himself to the young women spilling out of every room. He gathers his houseguests for a round of mimosas and badgers one of them with apparently arbitrary questions: “What do you sell?” “Tell me what a good time is.” It takes a while for the scene to make narrative sense (the tape recorder he pulls out suggests this is one of his unorthodox research methods) and gain thematic resonance (what are these questions about if not the cornerstones of modern consumer culture?). Just as the reluctant interviewee begins warming up to Robert’s interrogation—“Dreaming,” she says, is her idea of a good time—Cassavetes cuts to the glare of a stage light, and we find ourselves in a louche lounge populated largely by gay men and transvestites, where a beautiful singer, Susan (Diahnne Abbott), soon to be another temporary object of Robert’s attentions, is crooning a Bob Marley number.
This is how Love Streams proceeds, less in a flow than as a series of small jolts, guided by the unruly impulses of characters who lurch and fumble their way from one emotional extreme to another. While Robert flits among equally expendable distractions, Sarah, when we first see her, is desperately clinging to her center of gravity. At a custody hearing, her strained accounts of Jack’s philandering and her own saintlike pastime of visiting hospitals and funerals alarm and put off the presiding judge and her adolescent daughter, Debbie, who opts to live with Jack. Sarah sees the shrink, who inquires about her sex life, cautions her against landing in the “bughouse” again, and prescribes a trip to Europe (which the film elides in a single cut). We don’t yet know how Sarah and Robert are connected, but the parallel structure suggests a profound linkage. They are opposites in some ways—Sarah loves too much, Robert can’t or won’t love at all—but both emit force fields that simultaneously attract and repel. Both are frequently surrounded by people—Robert in clubs and casinos and with his gaggle of paid companions, disposable with the wave of a check, and Sarah, with her heaps of luggage, comically reliant on a string of porters and cabdrivers—and yet both are terribly alone.
It is nearly an hour into the film before they meet, Sarah pulling up in Robert’s driveway with two taxis full of luggage. Their fierce embrace is a moment of tremendous poignancy that seems as if it might settle the movie—but no sooner have Sarah’s many bags been unloaded than Robert decides, on a dime, to head to Vegas with Albie (Jakob Shaw), the eight-year-old son (and total stranger) whom an ex-wife has just deposited on his doorstep. A human pinball, Robert acts out all the interruptions and reversals that are characteristic of thought. In one of the film’s most beautiful scenes, Sarah and Robert dance wordlessly before a glowing jukebox to Mildred Bailey’s “Where Are You?” But when Sarah mentions that Susan called while he was out, Robert pulls away, breaks the spell, moves on to the next diversion at hand. Later that night, the siblings’ first extended conversation—in fact, the moment it is finally revealed that they are siblings—is framed through a doorway, Sarah in profile but Robert mostly out of view, his arm occasionally sticking into the frame.
The hopeless misalignment between these two almost soul mates, the sense of push-pull and perpetual interruptus in their exchanges, gives the film both a deep, lingering sorrow and the syncopated rhythm of a farce. The instability of the characters is contagious; the world itself seems mutable. Sarah’s hallucinations and visions—running Jack over with a car, trying to make her family laugh with joke-store props—repeatedly bleed into the film’s reality, never clearly signposted as fantasies. Adding to the dreamlike quality, some of the sets, like the nightclub and the train stations Sarah passes through, are bare-bones to the point of abstraction. And if there was ever any doubt that “realist” is too limiting a tag for Cassavetes, the comic register tilts fully into the surreal in the final act, when Sarah buys out an entire animal shelter and brings home two miniature horses, a goat, a duck, a parakeet, several chickens, and a dog named Jim.
No other Cassavetes film demonstrates as richly or movingly how “his comedies face up to tragedy and reject it,” to borrow a phrase from critic and filmmaker Thom Andersen. The physicality of the actors is nothing new, but Cassavetes and Rowlands, sharing the screen for the last time, edge their performances into tragicomic slapstick. A botched, drunken pass at Susan results in Robert taking a painful tumble down her front steps; later, dropping off his stricken son after their disastrous Vegas outing, Robert gets beaten up by the boy’s stepfather. More than once, Sarah responds to unwelcome news by simply lying down on the floor, easing herself into a state of supine rebellion (just as Myrtle brings a rehearsal to a halt in Opening Night by refusing to get up). It’s telling that, for both Sarah and Robert, these collapses tend to prompt spontaneous ministrations and professions of love from concerned bystanders.
Unlike Allan’s original play, which reveals it up front, Love Streams withholds the nature of Sarah and Robert’s relationship until an hour and a half into the movie. This isn’t mere coyness—that they are brother and sister precludes the obvious fix of a romantic consummation (although the play hinted more strongly at an incestuous bond), and allows Cassavetes to conduct an anatomy of love in a broader sense. It is part of the film’s design to refuse the straitjacket of roles, to insist that what we mean to one another is fluid, provisional, subject to reinvention. The woman in the opening scene, whom we first assume to be an ex or lover of Robert’s, is eventually introduced as “my secretary, my friend, my accountant.” Sarah, who at one point says she has no relatives, refers later to Robert as “my closest and my dearest friend.” In the film’s strangely enchanted, gently electrified atmosphere, almost any role is up for grabs. When Robert pays a late-night visit to Susan, he ends up dancing instead with her mother, who has improvised an outfit by wrapping herself in a bedsheet and sticking flowers in her hair. In the most bizarre slippage, the dog Jim, described to Sarah at the animal shelter as “a warm, wonderful, and fine human being,” appears in one of the final scenes as a bearded, bare-chested man to Robert, who responds with a hearty laugh.
The ending is an enigma, and not just because of the dog-man apparition (which is on some level a private joke, as the same actor played the dog in the stage production). Inspired by a dream in which her reconciliation with Jack and Debbie is imagined as a full-blown opera, Sarah decides to leave in the middle of a howling storm. This time it’s Robert who’s left behind, more alone than ever, his harem replaced with an even more absurd menagerie. It is hard to say if this fleeting encounter has left either of them altered in any way, even if they seem for the moment to have exchanged roles, and it is hard to know what has inspired Sarah’s sudden resolve and what Robert’s wave of the hat signifies in the exquisite, rain-streaked final shot. But there is a certain equanimity in this irresolution. Love Streams finds a perspective on its volatile characters that approaches serenity. So many of Cassavetes’s other films are domestic disaster movies; the mood in Love Streams is postapocalyptic. His earlier work zeroed in on the crisis points in human relationships. The characters in Love Streams have lived through their share of crises and will likely live through more. The open ending bears out Sarah’s philosophy. As Robert exits the frame, the song on the jukebox goes: “I didn’t know what to do / So I’ll leave it up to you”—a fitting farewell from a romantic who knew that on the subject of love there are no last words.
Dennis Lim is director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. He has written for various publications, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Artforum, and Cinema Scope.