The complexities that attended writer Christopher Isherwood and artist Don Bachardy's early romance aren't hard to grasp. There was the three-decade age difference, Isherwood being 49 when he met the 18-year-old Bachardy on a Santa Monica beach in 1953. Check the imbalance in their accomplishments: Isherwood's authorial celebrity having been established from his "Berlin Stories," while Bachardy remained unformed for years and marginalized by Isherwood's famous friends, until he discovered a talent for portraiture. They were also openly gay during a perilously conservative era.
But "Chris & Don: A Love Story," a new documentary about their close-knit, marriage-like union -- long an inspiration for many out-of-the-closet gays -- makes movingly clear why their bond endured. Though drawn together by the thrill of infatuation, fostered by Isherwood's penchant for emergent male youth and Bachardy's awe of fame and glitz, the pair developed a durable love strengthened by nurturing and patience. In recounting this journey, directors Guido Santi and Tina Mascara make rich use of the couple's glamorous home movies (Auden! Maugham! Caron!); Isherwood's diaries read by Michael York; and original interviews, anchored by the thoughtful Bachardy -- now a spry septuagenarian -- in the hillside Santa Monica home that they shared until Isherwood's death in January 1986.
"Chris & Don" charts with anecdotal verve the arc of their lives together: the trusting intimacy that blossomed as a side effect of a bad night in Morocco with Paul Bowles and hashish, the brazen togetherness they displayed at Hollywood functions among the closeted and bigoted, and how they worked through Bachardy's inevitable yearning to test the waters outside the only relationship he'd ever known.
Also addressed is the curious notion that the American-born Bachardy was molded by Cambridge-educated Isherwood into a younger version of himself -- "cloned," one interviewee describes it -- down to the clipped accent, posture and dry sensibility. That said, it's clear Bachardy likewise provided Isherwood with a lasting domestic peace, and without Isherwood's prodding, Bachardy -- whose father was a steady source of discouragement -- wouldn't have found independence as a highly regarded portrait artist.
Decorating the film are examples of Bachardy's work, including, most touchingly, the ceaseless renderings he made of Isherwood's dying form -- agreed to by the writer -- when prostate cancer had taken over. This is when "Chris & Don" most achingly communicates their adoringly entwined, mutually influential lives. Because if Isherwood's delicately shaded, watchful prose ever had a visual corollary, it's his partner's gift with an evocative, supple line.
"Chris & Don: A Love Story." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes. At the NuArt, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A., (310) 281-8223.