Sunday, March 17, 2013

Husbands and wives

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2008)
Married Life, directed by Ira Sachs, is being advertised as a comedy. The title may suggest a tragedy to some readers; the fact that I’m not ultimately sure in what camp to place the film should probably count as a compliment. It’s set in 1949. Chris Cooper plays Harry, long married to Pam (Patricia Clarkson), but now in love with a much younger widow, Kay (Rachel McAdams). He confides in his best friend Richard (Pierce Brosnan), an unmarried rake who soon develops his own designs on Kay. Seeing no clear way to the new life he craves, Harry starts to dream of getting Pam out of the way. 

Other Movies

Several reviews of Married Life evoked Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, as a better evocation of approximately the same era. Haynes’ film evoked Hollywood norms (particularly as per the lush melodramas of Douglas Sirk), while updating them…or maybe making them more honest, it’s rather difficult to know which. It was at least as much about movies themselves as about “the 50’s,” much as his latest film I’m Not There isn’t exactly “about” Bob Dylan (truer to say it’s “around” Bob Dylan). Married Life looks initially as if it intends to provide a window into a vanished era – it’s plainly a man’s world, with an initial scene between Harry and Richard in one of those martini and steak watering holes. But it quickly settles into a rather abstracted mode, with the period flavour seldom fore-grounded, and with no particular apparent aesthetic ambition.

I watch movies in bits and pieces as time allows, frequently watching one while I have another in progress, and I love the accidental echoes and juxtapositions resulting from this jumble of inputs. Just before watching Married Life I’d been rewatching Edward Yang’s famous Yi Yi, and was thinking that, although still marvelous, Yang’s film might be a little more strained than I’d remembered. But then I read the fine essay by Kent Jones that accompanies the DVD and decided I was taking too much for granted. Jones eloquently highlights the grace and balance and luminosity of Yang’s film, placing any minor cavils safely back in perspective. Well, that’s all for another article. But thinking of Yi Yi helped to bring out Married Life’s extreme simplicity. Most scenes involve just two people, hardly ever more than three; still and slow and rather airless, it barely seems attuned to Life, married or otherwise.

Even more serendipitously, when I saw Sachs’ film I was in the middle of watching Richard Quine’s 1965 comedy How to Murder your Wife. This has Jack Lemmon as a rich and happy bachelor cartoonist who impulsively (i.e. drunkenly) marries a gorgeous Italian, has her take over his life, and fantasizes via his syndicated strip about killing her off; when she actually does disappear, he’s put on trial for murder. In the remarkable finale, Lemmon proclaims his guilt and pleads justifiable homicide, on the basis that acquitting him will be the one small step for man (and I don’t mean mankind) that helps the wretched male claw back some dignity. The (all-man) jury leaps to find him innocent and carries him from the courtroom in triumph (in the end, naturally, she comes back and he ends up with her regardless).

Murdering Your Wife

The film is a satire of course, but really only admits to such in its portrayal of the men (with Terry-Thomas, as Lemmon’s manservant – I told you it was a different era – literally winking at the camera). Women are categorically, shamelessly, juicily parodied, objectified, marginalized. Men and women can’t communicate – emphasized big-time here since Lemmon’s new wife doesn’t initially speak a word of English. It’s a remarkable creation – far smoother, more literate and better acted than what passes now for mainstream comedy, but astonishingly problematic. And, of course, helplessly revealing.

Which helped me to tune in to Married Life’s peculiar avoidance of revelation, or even much exploration. Any movie with “Life” in the title, though, seems to be advertising some ambition. But it’s hard here to find orientation. Early on, we hear that Pam equates love only with sex, and is skeptical of any deeper connection beyond that. We’re told several times that Harry’s marriage has left him physically satisfied but emotionally deprived. Richard suggests that this plight is ironic – that Harry might actually be in the ideal male position. But this never gets much beyond surface positioning. We don’t see anything of their sex life. Cooper gives an uninteresting, recessive performance, and Clarkson seems emotionally more alive than he does. And then Cooper doesn’t seem any more fired up with Kay than he does with Pam. And the movie seems to be going out of its way not to make Kay at all interesting either. What to make of all this?

I think in part, this is merely charting a filmmaker’s limitations (Sachs’ previous feature, Forty Shades of Blue, won a prize at Sundance – I haven’t seen it). And yet, the film unquestionably exhibits a nicely perverse, if confounding sensibility. Too consistently to be merely mis-stepping, it avoids expectations. For example, the story is told in part by Richard’s voice over, implying initially that he is to be the observer to a story centering on Harry. But without giving too much away, much less happens to Harry than seems likely, and the story ends up seeming more like Richard’s own. At the end, Richard suggests that we take something away from all this about “the things we do for love.” At face value it’s a bewildering wrap-up of what we’ve seen, unless “love” is synonymous with “just going on.”

Under the Influence

After those last few words, we watch through a window as a couple rearranges the living room furniture after their evening guests have gone home. Final association – it reminded me of the end of John Cassavetes’ Woman under the Influence, where the Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands characters, after a film’s worth of trauma, settle into their nightly routine. Love is a terrible gift in Cassavetes’ film, almost proving itself only through its ability to destroy. It’s frightening and exhilarating, whereas the end of Sachs’ film is depressing and profoundly unsatisfactory. Maybe it ought to be called Married Death.

This has elements of a fascinating ideological experiment, but you can see I’m not sure what to make of the film. I’d like to think it’s a smart exercise in perpetual misdirection, subtly toying with our expectations. Maybe so, or maybe it just means that even a rather limited and failed film about marriage will benefit from a century’s worth of filmic associations.

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