Arts

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Unconventional relationships are at the heart of ‘Partners’

One of the couples in Henry Horenstein’s documentary “Partners.”
One of the couples in Henry Horenstein’s documentary “Partners.”

When it comes to making relationships work, a sense of humor always helps. The same goes for making a film about relationships, as Henry Horenstein’s wry, genial, and uplifting documentary “Partners” demonstrates.

These aren’t always conventional relationships, unless your idea of conventional includes anything that puts a premium on nurturing, tolerance, and tenderness. For example, the intimate bonding enjoyed by the two women who met on a beach as teenagers decades ago and discovered that they wanted to share every aspect of their lives. Except sex. They gave it a try, but it didn’t work out. So they lead routine heterosexual lives — freely dating and hooking up with men — knowing that they will always have that deeper spiritual intimacy with each other.

They offer one of the 19 romantic arrangements explored by Horenstein in a series of lively interviews that often come off like stand-up comedy routines — though about serious topics. Such as death and loss. One woman appears with a framed portrait of the man she loved and who died over 20 years ago. And yet, she says, he is still with her. Like right now. She explains how when he died she moved into his home and strange things — inexplicable noises and the like — began happening. “Did you hear that?” she says. There isn’t a sound.

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Others have ménages with more than one set of partners. Two elegant, middle-aged African-American women crack up the off-screen filmmakers with their descriptions of how they live as lovers in the same house with both of their husbands. A trio of twentysomethings, two men and a woman, discuss their extended polyamorous network with good humor. Later, one of the men confesses that he sometimes feels jealous but realized that their system was working when he saw how everyone rallied to support the woman, who is, we learn, recovering from a stroke.

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Then there are old-fashioned marriages, like that of the Texas cowboy couple who have been hitched since 1964. And unconventional approaches to conventional couplings. One ebullient pair — a statuesque woman with muscular arms and a sporty headband and her husband, a Brit with a dry wit whose deformed arms end at the elbows with thumbless hands — describe their wedding. It took place on a stage with bridesmaids made up like zombies. When the vows were being read everyone chanted the chorus from Tod Browning’s “Freaks”: “One of us! One of us!”

These are people who embrace their differences and demonstrate kinship with the universal values of empathy, courage, independence, and joy. But their choices sometimes come with a price. A transgender woman and her partner, a furry wearing a lamb mask, joke blithely but then reveal how they are often abused and that their community suffers from a high suicide rate. Nonetheless they are open about who they are and try to educate those who — through ignorance, intolerance, or a distorted notion of normality — would condemn them.

Horenstein’s film should help in that cause. His style and strategy are simple. The subjects are filmed standing before a gray screen, like those interviewed by Errol Morris’s Interretron or the motion picture equivalent of Elsa Dorfman’s giant Polaroid portraits. He wittily weaves together these snippets of interviews, forming a diverse collage that affirms such exemplary working partnerships.  

“Partners” screens on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts. Horenstein, whose work also appears in the MFA exhibition “(un)expected families” (through June 24), will be on hand for a post-screening discussion. Go to www.mfa.org/programs/film/partners.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.