And they lived happily ever after, we read, and the story ends. Everything that has scared us and challenged us is put to rest by the institution of marriage, which removes all the ambivalence from life and sets us on a path of security and comfort. At least this is what fairy tales and love stories have told us since time immemorial, but have we always believed it? The Victorians are defined by their hopeless belief in romance in their art and books, but The Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 allowed women to keep their fortunes intact to protect them from gold diggers, so they obviously knew that marriage wasn’t exactly the end of all of life’s problems.
Now when we live in a time when divorce has lost most (but not all) of the social stigma that prevented its popularity for most of the century, it’s amazing to see that people still get married. The ambivalence between committing to a principle higher than just fickle lust or love, and admitting that it’s simply not possible, is the fertile ground from which a lot of drama can be born. Movies throughout the decade have shown us that there’s plenty to be said about what happens after happily ever after.
Criterion has put together a collection of marital tales, most of which aren’t going to inspire you to jump to propose any time soon: the ones who stay together are miserable (or, in one case, possibly a fantasy), those who part do so in a morass of bigamy, infidelity and acrimony. One of them, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, was actually my parents’ first date, and the significance of that on my feelings on marriage is something I’ll save for my one-man show.
ThatShelf.com contributors Colin Biggs, Barbara Goslawski and Pat Mullen generously offered to share the burden of reacting to Hollywood’s idea of matrimony. Here are all the films in preferential order. All blurbs by me except where noted.
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
A Tehran couple open this riveting film in a courtroom as they look to obtain a divorce. She wants to take their daughter abroad to study and have the chance at a better life, while he wants to stay behind and take care of his father who is dying of Alzheimer’s. When their impasse results in Simin (Leila Hatami) going to live with her parents, Nader (Peyman Moaadi) hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat) as his housekeeper to clean their home and keep his father from leaving the house during the hours while he is at work and his daughter is at school. Razieh is a religiously devout woman with little experience in taking care of seniors with dementia, and when her own personal conflicts flare up and cause problems, it inspires a crisis that sees the lot of them fighting it out in the courts and sees Nader accused of murder. This is about as perfect as films ever get–the absolute best-acted, directed and scripted film of its year, graced with a group of performances that achieve a level of realism that is rarely so effective and direction that is incredibly smooth from beginning to end. Added to the three characters above are Shahab Hosseini as Razieh’s husband, whose shame at being unemployed combines with his religious conservatism to make him very hot-tempered, as well as director Asghar Farhadi’s daughter Sarina as the child whose loyalties when tested make for the film’s most heartbreaking moments.
Scenes From A Marriage (Ingmar Bergman, 1973)
The Criterion Channel is currently screening the three-hour theatrical version, but if you can get access to the full six-hour version first broadcast on Swedish television, make sure you go for it. Either way, you’re treated to a riveting, exciting chamber piece focusing on the dissolution of Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson’s union over a number of years. The focus is mostly on the two characters, but there’s also the outside pressure of children, friends (including a terrific cameo by Bibi Andersson) and extended family members who influence their relationship as it fluctuates between inflicting their own pain on the other or trying to make things work. Rather than allowing any blame to be placed on either spouse or whittle everything down to one insurmountable problem, Bergman’s beautiful work, one of his finest, suggests that it is the unsteady ebb and flow of long term relationships that ultimately leads to its destruction.
45 Years (Andrew Haigh, 2015)
Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) have been happily married for, as the title suggests, forty-five years, and living in their idyllic Norfolk home. The exciting part of the day is taking their dog for a walk across the gorgeous empty fields that make up the breathtaking landscape. Coming up in a few days is a celebration they have planned for their anniversary, originally to be thrown for their fortieth but pre-empted by Geoff’s past health problems which are now settled. When the post office brings a letter from continental Europe letting them know that the body of Geoff’s ex-girlfriend, a woman he dated before Kate and died in a skiing accident in the Alps, has been discovered frozen where she fell, it causes its own avalanche of revelations between the previously stable couple. What is the meaning of a life spent together if one person is only there because their actual choice was taken away? And what does it mean if that person insists that they are not unhappy with the way their life turned out? Andrew Haigh’s brilliant, perfectly acted drama examines all these devastating, unsettling themes of longtime coupledom without ever letting it get contrived or melodramatic, instead detailing emotional devastation with the kind of detail that you usually get from reading an Iris Murdoch novel. Rampling’s piercing eyes and Courtenay’s dumbfounded stares are enough to make bombs burst wordlessly in this gorgeous film, The tension between them mounts so subtly until the gloriously elegant finale. 45 Years features a terrific supporting performance by the stunning Geraldine James.
Juliet of the Spirits (Federico Fellini, 1965)
In Fellini’s first full-colour film, Giulietta Masina (the real Mrs. Fellini) plays a fictionalized version of herself in a female companion piece to 8 ½. That one was about a filmmaker who, among other things, steps out on his wife; this one is about a housewife who suspects that her public relations genius husband is cheating on her. A séance early in the film opens up her mind to a slew of spiritual possibilities that have been lying dormant for so long. They also give her the freedom to explore her own feelings while also trying to figure out the truth behind her husband’s reticence to talk about the gap in their relationship. Filmed with the usual florid camera moves and wry characters that populate all of Fellini’s films, this gem is eye-popping in its splendour and honest in its depiction of a woman whose psyche is laid out flat for us to explore. Upon its initial release the film was a huge bomb that nearly bankrupted Fellini, who didn’t make another grand feature again until Fellini Satyricon five years later.
Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)
Juliette Binoche is outstanding as an antiques dealer who meets an author (opera singer William Shimell making a highly impressive cinematic acting debut) who has written a book on historical artistic forgeries. She takes him to see a painting in a Tuscan museum, and throughout their day, they discuss art and society before they are mistaken for a married couple. The conversation soon veers towards the more personal issues of love and companionship. Kiarostami has always made a habit of creating stories that exist on knife edges between reality and fiction, and here he has the potential to frustrate the viewer with a constant narrative uncertainty: are they a real couple and we just haven’t noticed? Or are they playing a game with each other to shake out their personal demons? The point is not to know, a feeling not shared by journalists at Cannes following its premiere, who inundated Kiarostami with questions seeking narrative security. This is a film to be felt, not understood, and its enigmatic qualities contribute as much to the poetic beauty of the experience as do the languid dialogue and captivating performances. Binoche is so powerful it would be quite easy to simply watch her face react to situations for hours without getting bored (she took the Best Actress prize at the festival), while Shimell matches her beautifully with his emotionally unavailable frustration, as compellingly stunted as she is vulnerably accessible.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols, 1966)
Colin Biggs: A year before Mike Nichols defined generational angst with The Graduate, he brought the world’s most combative couple to life with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The Edward Albee play upon which the film is based was acerbic already, but in adding two alcohol-fuelled screen legends to the mix, the film becomes a masterclass in spite and rage. An exercise in the relentless escalation of stakes, Woolf has Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) and George (Richard Burton) unleash every grudge they’ve held over the last few decades in front of their guests for the evening. Young Nick (George Segal) and Honey (Sandy Dennis) think their invitation to dinner was a friendly gesture made by the wife of a tenured professor, but they soon find out they are merely pawns for George and Martha to manipulate; the older couple is tired of just playing “fun and games” with each other and would like new opponents. The old married couple see their previous selves in the youthful newlyweds and, jealously, reduce Nick and Honey to cinders. The dynamic between George and Martha is so poisonous that the laughs come easy, but the tragedy lurks, waiting for a devastating finale to floor the audience. Burton and Taylor’s real-life history surely played a role in the exhaustive duel that plays out over two hours. Once Burton finally explodes in rage when Taylor reveals their “secret,” it feels like a bomb has gone off. All married couples know how to push each other’s buttons, but if you recognize if anything about Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? seems familiar, it might be time to call the divorce attorney.
La Notte (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961)
Barbara Goslawski: La Notte is perfect for those who like to experience a crumbling marriage as a slow burn: I look at it as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’s polar opposite. (I think they’d make one hell of a double bill!) In this film, the couple aren’t screaming at each other or lashing out. The misery in La Notte is more subtly expressed and almost repressed. In typical fashion, Antonioni’s unconventional story telling methods revolve around visual cues in the composition of the imagery to express feelings and mood. As in Virginia Woolf, the director utilizes a concentrated time period. This, of course, makes the experience of the film more intense. We follow Lydia (Jeanne Moreau) and Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) for less than 24 hours, but by the end of it, we’ve all been through the wringer together. Bored intellectuals, they don’t seem to connect to anything, let alone each other. Much of the film feels like a dissociative game. It’s only Lydia’s soul searching that triggers any sort of reflection between them. Slow to start, yes, but just a modicum of patience rewards. Before long we are reoriented to Antonioni’s hallucinatory revelation: in the modern world, feelings of love do not annul our intrinsic state of alienation.
5 x 2 (François Ozon, 2004)
François Ozon effectively examines the disintegration of a marriage by playing five key scenes in reverse chronological order. We see the couple in question divorce, followed by a scene from their married life with their toddler, then the birth of their son, their wedding night (and oh, what a wedding night!), and finishing with the beginning of their romance. Valeria Bruni Tedeschi is luminous as the female half of the couple, while Stéphane Freiss is compelling as the male, the two of them achieving a fascinating level of intimacy that the camera never tires of exploring. The characters are rich and the screenplay is absolutely impeccable, its reverse storytelling a successful device at letting us in on who these people are and what makes them tick.
Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (Richard Brooks, 1958)
Pat Mullen: Hot damn, this film is pure sex! Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman were two of the hottest stars of their generation and few leads scorched the screen like they did in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The film adapts Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize winning play about the tempestuous marriage of Maggie “the cat” (Liz) and her husband Brick (Newman) during an evening of farewell for Brick’s terminally ill father (Burl Ives). Although the film all but removes the implications of Brick’s conflicted sexuality, the couple’s toxic marriage has the power of a summer storm. Cat sweats with the palpable heat created by Taylor and Newman. In terms of Taylor’s filmography, it might be outmatched only by the booze-fuelled squabbles of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Few careers, on screen or off, afford such fascinating looks at marriage.
Faces (John Cassavetes, 1968)
John Cassavetes captures drunken stupor to absolute perfection in this exceptionally well-acted film. Gena Rowlands plays a beautiful young woman who captures the fancy of John Marley, who has just left his wife (Lynn Carlin) in search of something better and thinks Rowlands is it. Carlin follows her state of shock at having been abandoned by getting interested in a young man (Seymour Cassel) who has just arrived to New York from Detroit. The natural quality of the acting is unmistakably important and would have a huge impact on cinema, but the story itself is, like many of Cassavetes’ films, is too intent on being unpleasant and might come off a bit pretentious.
Kramer Vs. Kramer (Robert Benton, 1979)
Pat Mullen: Robert Benton’s Oscar winning marriage story socks it to the women’s lib movement with its tale of divorce told from a devoted father’s point of view. The drama sees mother Joanna (Meryl Streep) escape her suffocating marriage to find herself anew, while her ex, Ted (Dustin Hoffman), raises their son alone, and discovers how he took his wife for granted while playing both parental roles. The film’s views of gender roles speak to the resistance of patriarchal society to women’s liberation, while Hoffman’s notorious on-set behaviour used the recent death of Streep’s partner John Cazale to manipulate her emotions. Both factors make the film a time capsule for Hollywood’s gender dynamics and Streep’s professionalism. Streep turns the film on its head with a monologue she rewrote after feeling that the script was unfair to Joanna’s point of view, articulating the rights for women to be both mothers and working professionals, worthy of the same respect and opportunities their husbands enjoy. Then the film undermines that sentiment with a happy ending for Ted, which, weird as it is, feels satisfying. The film should not hold up in 2020, yet somehow does.
California Suite (Herbert Ross, 1978)
A collection of Neil Simon characters are gathered into one hotel for a multi-hued look at life in the world of Beverly Hills wealth. Jane Fonda has come from to New York to meet with her ex-husband (Alan Alda). Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor and their wives have to share a room thanks to clerical error. Walter Matthau is waiting for his wife to arrive the next day but doesn’t know what to do about the hooker in his hotel room. The best of these segments involves a brilliant Maggie Smith as a British actress who has come to Hollywood to attend the Academy Awards as a nominee with her husband (Michael Caine). It’s full of Simon’s trademark smug humour, but the appealing characters and all-star cast will keep you amused long enough.
The Bigamist (Ida Lupino, 1953)
Joan Fontaine is happily married to Edmond O’Brien and they have no problems save one: they can’t conceive a child. When he goes off on a business trip, he meets Ida Lupino (who also directed this independently produced film) and starts an affair with her. Not telling her he is already married to Fontaine, he marries Lupino as well and they have a child. Now the cad is going back and forth between wives until finally the game is up and he finds himself in court for committing bigamy. Though the story sounds lurid, it’s actually a well-acted character piece that requests sympathy for all involved and doesn’t sensationalize its subjects.
Come Back Little Sheba (Daniel Mann, 1952)
Shirley Booth wanders around her kitchen begging for our affection in this grimy little kitchen-sink drama. She won an Academy Award as a housewife who has to contend with the boring nature of her life while waiting for her beloved pet of the title to return home to her. Her husband (Burt Lancaster) was once her dearest companion but is now an alcoholic with his sights set on the young, new tenant (Terry Moore) of their building. At the time, I’m sure her performance and the film itself seemed like great drama, but now, it’s a bit cheesy.