Cutie and the Boxer takes off the gloves

A documentary about married artists offers deep, quiet intimacy

All is unfair in love and art. Or at least that's one lesson a viewer might take away from the new documentary about married artists Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, Cutie and the Boxer. Don't let the ick-making title put you off: the film is a contemplatively quiet, modest, and bittersweet depiction of a complex marriage that's a beautiful aesthetic object in and of itself.

The film opens with Ushio on the morning of his 80th birthday: the two artists live in a homey, if somewhat shabby and even leaky, apartment in Brooklyn. He is a pop artist and action painter who's earned a bit of fame but very little money; she's a painter who is working on a memoir-like graphic novel, one that delves into some of the quiet resentments she's harbored having to give up her own ambitions to act as his assistant and raise their son. Among the film's many charming moments are the animated sequences of Noriko's drawings depicting a stylized version of their past. The two immigrated from Japan separately: in the 1970s when they met, he was a 41-year-old darling of the avant-garde scene in New York, she was a bright-eyed art student arriving from Japan with a bit of her parent's money.

Unusual in film — even by art-house documentary standards — Cutie is short on incident, but long on intimacy. There's something winningly reticent and unboastful about the pair: what slowly comes across is their outrageous generosity in being filmed, their unspoken invitation for viewers to walk into their lives, not always their words, but their intimate exchanges, long looks, quiet moments. The shifts in mood are occasionally hard to read, but they're nonetheless always undisguised. And first-time filmmaker Zachary Heinzerling never pushes an agenda or asks us to take sides.

We see a chain of dependencies, resentments, desperation, affections, frustrations, jealousy, unfairness, all the layers of a 40-year relationship. In one scene, Ushio crams as many of his cardboard motorcycle sculptures that will fit into a big suitcase for a selling trip to Japan. We see him return with a small stack of crisp hundred dollar bills: he thinks it's about $3,500 and asks Noriko to count. There's a haphazardness and precariousness to it all that clearly drives Noriko nearly mad. At 80, with multiple gallery shows in New York, with glowing reviews in the New York Times and Art in America under his belt, they are still sweating the rent.

Towards the end of the film as their joint exhibition is about to open, an interviewer asks Noriko what it's like for two artists to live together. "It's heaven and hell," she says. At times, it's hard for us to distinguish which is which. And I would guess that it's often hard for the artists themselves to parse out their personal heaven from their personal hell. Happiness and passion often clearly underlie bouts of volatility and disagreement, and moments of affection are often tinged with subdued pain. But as the film implies, in the end, it may not matter. After the successful and busy joint show opens, we see them back at home the next morning, looking a bit stunned. Then, it's time to get back to work. Heaven or hell, fair or unfair, in the end, what's the difference? Either way, for an artist, it is always work, work, work.