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Originally published Friday, August 1, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"Chris & Don": exploring a transcendent bond

The long relationship of writer Christopher Isherwood (whose works inspired "Cabaret") and artist Don Bachardy is chronicled in "Chris & Don: A Love Story," directed by Guido Santi and Tina Mascara.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3 stars

"Chris & Don: A Love Story," a documentary directed by Guido Santi and Tina Mascara. 90 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. Varsity.

"I did feel awed by the emotional intensity of our relationship, from the beginning — a strange sense of a fated, mutual discovery," wrote Christopher Isherwood in his diaries, early on in his relationship with Don Bachardy. Isherwood, the British writer whose stories about his life in pre-World War II Berlin inspired "Cabaret," met Bachardy, then a gaptoothed teenager, on a Malibu beach in the early 1950s. Despite an age difference of 30 years, their connection was immediately electric; their first kiss, the story goes, broke a window. The two would be together for more than three decades, until Isherwood's death in 1986.

Guido Santi and Tina Mascara's "Chris & Don: A Love Story" gracefully chronicles their relationship, filled with contemporary interviews with Bachardy (who still lives in the Santa Monica home he shared with Isherwood) and his friends, home movies and just a few re-enactments of the men in their younger days. An additional — and enchanting — touch is a sprinkling of animated sequences by Katrina and Kristina Swanger, depicting a cat and a horse. These are Kitty and Dobbin, the animal personas Bachardy and Isherwood adopted in their affectionate correspondence. Late in the film, as the now gray-haired Bachardy lies down to sleep in a narrow bed from which he can see the stars, we see Dobbin looking down fondly from the moon, far away yet still keeping watch over him.

Their lives, to judge by the array of film clips, were glamorous ones, surrounded by Isherwood's high-profile friends: Tennessee Williams, E.M. Forster, Bette Davis, Igor Stravinsky. But this love story wasn't perfect; two men in love weren't acceptable to many, particularly with such a wide age gap. Bachardy — who looked even younger than he was — found himself often ignored or patronized; even today, friends speak of how Isherwood shaped the younger man, to the extent that the California-born Bachardy still, perhaps unconsciously, speaks with a British accent. "Isherwood had succeeded in cloning himself," filmmaker John Boorman says in the film.

Bachardy fought hard to be accepted as an artist in his own right and eventually became an acclaimed painter. Art and life merged in Isherwood's last days: Bachardy, taking care of his soul mate during the writer's final illness, painted a series of stark yet tender portraits of Isherwood, including one of his corpse. A raspy-voiced Bachardy remembers his belief that Isherwood would encourage a post-mortem portrait. "He would say, yes, that's what an artist would do," Bachardy says, pausing to compose himself. "And that's what an artist did do."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725

or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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