In these times of shifting attitudes and emerging identities, how could films portray romantic love, that most celebrated of human relationships, with its universal allure and unchanging essence as well as its contemporary complications?
Changing Partners, Dan Villegas’ deft adaptation into film of the stage musical by Vincent de Jesus, feels like an answer to that challenge. It is the story of Cris and Alex, lovers separated by 15 years in age; this disparity is only the first among many contrasts explored in this film.
It begins with Alex (Agot Isidro) coming home from work to the sweet welcome of her young beau, Cris (Sandino Martin). They tease each other and mess around, eminently delighted in each other’s company, their love intense and careless. But later in the bedroom, after Cris has fallen asleep, Alex lights a cigarette while she sings the first song of the film. She confesses that people’s talk about their relationship has started to bother her. The song ends, the scene cuts to the next morning, and the bouncy Cris teases Alex for not having the energy to wake up early—but Cris is now played by Anna Luna, and Alex by Jojit Lorenzo.
The uninitiated could mistake this puzzling transformation as a non-linear jump, that this new scene is perhaps a flashback, a plot complication to be resolved later on. But it never does, and is never explained. This is the twist that keeps Changing Partners riveting: throughout the story both Cris and Alex are alternately portrayed as male and female, so that both straight and gay relationships are depicted; it accounts for the androgynous names of the characters.
Watching the film is like indulging in one love story staged in four variations. The changing of the partners never loses its novelty; the way the characters swap in and out of scenes keeps up the anticipation. The parallel portrayals are deeply fascinating, even addicting.
Even the house where most of the action takes place changes its face, varying in elegance: one moment we watch Alex and Cris in a humble, bright townhouse; in the next scene they would occupy an upscale apartment with stark lighting and gorgeous furniture. The house is the intimate witness to their varying-but-same stories: Alex and Cris’s relationship is like a room constantly being renovated, the planks on the floor and the panels of the wall being taken apart and put back together, continually reconfigured but always defining the same small space. Take away the fluidity of circumstances, and what is left is the essence of a relationship. Changing Partners celebrates, heartbreaking as it is, the universal difficulty of love. The film merely gives it changing faces.
The chaos of the changing partners is matched by the characters’ intricate and well-drawn conflicts. Alex and Cris, regardless of gender, differ in temperament, maturity, and stability. Over the course of the film these differences spark a crescendo of troubles; love is declared, sacrifices are made, secrets are revealed. They grow in tension and pain until the lovers find themselves teetering at the point of no return.
It works thanks to accomplished acting by the film’s four-piece cast. There is no weak link here, even if Jojit Lorenzo earns extra credit for the added challenge of switching between gay and straight personalities; Agot Isidro’s alternating roles do not require such striking differences. Anna Luna steps up to the rawness demanded of the characters, and Sandino Martin more than holds his ground against the more experienced actors.
The music is of a typically grand sound, and adds another counterpoint to the intimacy of this otherwise-minimalist film. No dancing ensembles are required, or indeed any form of dancing. But the element that is most rewarding in Changing Partners, the aspect that justifies its translation to film, is editing—that art exclusive to the cinematic medium. The astute cutting of the film lends the changing-partners ploy a sharper effect than can be produced on a stage. The fine visuals by cinematographer Mycko David (of Neomanila and Birdshot fame) is truly just the cherry on top.
It is true that if Changing Partners is stripped of its experimental trick then it would be reduced to a straightforward, almost unremarkable story. But it would still be a heartfelt, perceptive, and well-written story. Alex and Cris oscillate from being lovey-dovey to being spiteful and nasty, but they evoke, always, authenticity. It is there when Cris talks silly as he asks Alex to buy him an expensive pair of shoes; it is there when Alex cracks sarcastic in the heat of argument, breaking the heavy monotony of drama that drowns such scenes in most other films. Changing Partners, despite its unconventional structure, never feels contrived. Watching it gives that voyeuristic pleasure we would be guilty about if the story were not fictional.
The story of Alex and Cris begins with so much happiness that the pain and tears of the following acts feel inevitable. Cris begins to have tempting ideas, visions of an alternative life, when an unseen friend (ironically and also ambiguously named Angel) plays devil’s advocate. Alex senses this doubting, and it triggers only a nagging insecurity at first, but discontents have a way of collecting like water behind a dam. The pressure builds as Alex and Cris increasingly find faults with each other, curiously externalizing their resentments onto the belongings they share. Umbrellas are lost, curtains are ripped, house plants are neglected, as the seemingly inescapable breakdown of their challenging love unfolds.
But all this happens along with the ceaseless changing of partners, and we are confronted with a strange feeling. It is in our nature to root for a relationship in crisis to turn things around, to hope for a happy ending. But whose relationship? Which Alex, which Cris are we rooting for? Their incarnations enter and exit the scene with such frequency that the individuals disappear in a blur, leaving only the spirit of their relationship. It points to what the film is saying: that in relationships, these artificial factors and social constructs of age, class and gender matter much less than more elusive, more essential ideas of identity.
And that is how Changing Partners succeeds in painting a portrait of postmodern romance.
Featured image taken from the film’s official Facebook page.