For years, filmmaker Cindy Kleine turned her camera on her parents, Phyllis and Harold Kleine, interviewing them, observing their lives in a nondescript suburban New York home. Beneath their stodgy domesticity she found a history so incendiary she couldn’t complete this film until both were dead.
Phyllis and Harold is a portrait of a marriage that epitomizes “lives of quiet desperation.” Back in the day, Harold was a control freak husband and a (mostly) absentee father who would whisk his wife away for elaborate globe-trotting vacations. A first-class photographer, he assembled a huge collection of shots of Phyllis in exotic locales, and these images are scattered throughout the film.
In her parents’ absence, young Cindy was raised by the family’s African-American maid; a highlight here is the filmmaker’s reunion with this seminal figure of her childhood.
As he aged, Harold lost his abrasive edge. The old man we meet seems an affable couch potato who rarely leaves his overstuffed chair, shares bickering banter with the missus and confides to the camera that he absolutely adores her (though we wonder if he ever told her that). They seem a normal enough old couple. So it shocks when Phyllis reveals that as a young wife she had a torrid affair with a married man and that well into her 70s she reunited with her lover and resumed the fling.
Phyllis and Harold works its magic slowly. It takes a while to get going, and some light-hearted animated sequences struck this viewer as inappropriate and irritating. But the film’s strength lies less in its big revelation than in its portrait of a man in total denial, blissfully unaware of his wife’s misery, and of a woman who turned her back on the great love of her life and spent most of her years in a bitter emotional limbo.
Director/producer: Cindy Kleine.
A Rainbow Releaseing film. Running time: 85 minutes. Playing in Miami-Dade only: Cosford.