A glint in his eye and a grin on his lips, artist Don Bachardy looks into the camera and explains the dynamic of his three-decade relationship with the late literary icon Christopher Isherwood as if it were a fairy tale. “His role,” Bachardy says, “could be described as that of the arch villain. He took this young boy and he warped him to his mold. He taught him all kinds of wicked things.” Pause a half-beat. “It was exactly what the boy wanted.

Don and Chris in front of Hockney's 1968 double portrait

“And we flourished.”

With his elegant cadence, crisp comedic timing and witty flipping of homophobic stereotypes — in his very choice and use of language — Bachardy is that story come to life: the student who eventually mirrored his teacher, the molded who became a duplicate of the mold.

Chris & Don: A Love Story is a charming, illuminating portrait of the complex and storied queer romance between Isherwood and Bachardy, who met on a Santa Monica beach in 1952, when Bachardy was a teenager and Isherwood 30 years his senior. Quilted from black-and-white home-movie clips, animated sequences that bring to life the duo’s correspondence and pet names, and original footage of the elderly Bachardy going about his daily routine or walking through the art-filled Santa Monica home he once shared with his partner, Tina Mascara and Guido Santi’s film uses standard documentary-filmmaking tools to celebrate three entities: Isherwood, Bachardy and a relationship that flaunted all the rules.

Individually, the men are fascinating in their own right, and Mascara and Santi flesh out their back stories in rich detail: Isherwood’s aristocratic upbringing and his break from it (though his background forever influenced every aspect of his being), and his life in Berlin, which became the basis for some of his most celebrated work (The Berlin Stories); Bachardy’s conservative, homophobic family life, and the electric-shock treatments that permanently debilitated his queer older brother. But it’s the relationship and life the men forged together that are most extraordinary. Their cosmopolitan circle (glamorous and influential friends included Elsa Lanchester, W.H. Auden, Igor Stravinsky, Aldous Huxley and Bertrand Russell) was at the center of a bygone era of both hyperliterate high culture and outsider chic. The terms on which the couple set up house not only reach back to the most ancient manifestations of queer coupling (the older man taking under his wing a younger partner, and schooling him on life, culture and sex), but also illustrate lingering issues with — or even within — the modern gay and lesbian community.

Theirs was an organic, constantly evolving companionship. They quite consciously shaped it but also allowed it to find its own patterns and path. There was extraordinary vulnerability in their union (“Don might leave me,” Isherwood is quoted as saying, “but I could never leave him. Not unless he ceased to need me”), matched only by the extraordinary faith in their bond. The relationship contained elements of the parent-child hierarchy (with the roles flip-flopping over time), but it was also an erotic quest that expanded to include other lovers — especially as Bachardy matured into being his own man — and then retreated to monogamous form, at least emotionally. And as Bachardy grew into his own creativity, it became a conversation between artists too. With the most delicate of hands, directors Mascara and Santi shape their investigative film into the revelation that all of this constituted Chris and Don’s love story.

The recent California Supreme Court ruling overturning this state’s ban on gay marriage brings gays, lesbians and same-sex relationships one crucial step closer to legitimacy in the eyes of the law — a legitimacy that was unimaginable when our two heroes first met, in the ’50s. But as confetti and champagne toasts greet the news, it might be a good thing for gays and straights to glean some lessons from Isherwood and Bachardy’s example: Make your own rules, set your own terms for connection and be willing to let them evolve as you and your partner hopefully do.

CHRIS & DON: A LOVE STORY | Directed by GUIDO SANTI and TINA MASCARA | Produced by JULIA SCOTT, MASCARA, SANTI and JAMES WHITE | Released by Zeitgeist Films | Nuart

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