Two for the road

I promised Nanda I’d write about this film, but I’m not sure I’m grateful for her recommendation! It’s fun at times & interesting at times, but once it’s done, is it anything to write home about? So I do not feel sure I can take responsibility for urging you on to read–I’ll try to make it worth your while.

There’s much to recommend it–Stanley Donen produced & directed, & he’s really good–then, too, the stars are good, Audrey Hepburn & Albert Finney, who is manly & handsome by turns. Wickedly handsome, I guess. & if you have a kind of romantic fancy, the score by Henry Mancini will take you over.

But is the story worth the telling? Two young people, Mark & Joanne, fall in love, end up married with kids, & then go through ugly troubles. They get a kind of happy end; it at least does not seem like an unhappy end. The director pulls this trick of moving back & forward in time across about ten years in-between happy & sad moments, as though you could get a mental image of who these people are & how come they’re together through thick & thin. This is one reason the story is interesting. They’re on a trip through France which turns out to be a number of trips. At the end, they’re going to America. Maybe that means they’re finally serious about marriage.

The guy talks a lot & is full of himself & of modern freedom: He does not want to marry. He sees in marriage only complaints, misery, mediocrity, & old-fashioned acquisitiveness on the part of women. He learns, people marry because they dare not live without one another. It’s not pride, it’s humility… But this does not humble his pride: He has much to be proud about: A delightful young woman falls in love with him & they are happy together. Maybe happiness is impious, but the way they do it–they seem like vagabonds, confident that the world is there for them to enjoy it. Family & country seem to have no meaning for them nor no grasp on them.

They are then compared to a modern couple–the woman is a former lover of Mark’s, who has made a mediocre marriage because it is safe & seems to have some kind of expectation of prosperity. The husband is an ugly, unmanly, calculating, graceless, charmless creature–a sort of devotee of psycho-analysis & the modern meaning of liberty: The child should do whatever he wants, including insulting guests & throwing the car keys out the window. This child recalls to mind the lovely couple, except that everything we like in them we dislike in him. What’s the difference? Its parents are, however, caricatures of the bourgeois.

There is some truth to this–they talk more about freedom than enjoy it & they do not have much by way of taste. Why would they journey through Europe if they have not the taste for its old, faded but real aristocratic beauty? Because it’s done… It’s still done in our days, as well as the modern psychological education of children…

Then they are compared to something not quite as modern–Mark meets a woman who is a feminine image of a modern man: Driving a roadster alone, freewheelin’, looking to pick up similarly attractive men. It turns out there is something inhuman about such pleasure-seeking–its anonymous character reveals why it is essentially lawless & used to be illegal. Joanne meets a sophisticated Frenchman, who think affairs should be conducted with taste & a certain degree of maturity–that is to say, immorally & sensibly. Mark says at some point, he had supposed America was the land of no inhibitions–again, the post-war social revolution that brought democracy to every heart & hearth…–but that he learned he was wrong. Both of them have to learn that the European opinion is wrong. In a sense, they’re trying to learn to be more inhibited.

I think there is a suggestion that his humanity depends on her: She knows who he is. Mark’s problems all seem to stem from the fact that he does not know who he is & he therefore does not believe she really loves him–well, he does, of course, but in a specific way, he does not: He’s not at all sure he’s worth loving, or anything. I think this is why the most frequent joke is, he has to show someone his passport & finds out he’s lost it & wants to turn back, but it turns out she’s got it. She is the repository of his identity, because she sets limits to his life as wife & mother of his child. Otherwise, his freedom would waste him–he’d inevitably learn, surprised, that the body ages, weakens, & dies…

It’s also funny that he’s an architect of some success: They’re basically homeless, it seems, living out of a car. She’s a choir girl, touring with other equally young & clueless girls. Freedom for Joanne means people are no longer telling her how to live her life & so she chooses this man who is always bossing her around. She acts the wife before he marries her. It’s her nature. She can live with that, although she is not good at ruling him, at moderating his excesses. This is the biggest problem about the romantic comedy: One expects women in American films to know how to rule men, or to learn. Perhaps romance & fantasies have stolen something of the practical wisdom by which America has fended off the immoderation typical of her men… It is suggested in several ways–quarrels about domestic concerns, her clothes & accessories, & their social standing–that she is modish. Freedom in the 60’s often meant using money to get stuff you want without any concern for anything more serious than whim…

The also have a rather neglected daughter. I’d’ve tried harder to make the happy end stick just for that reason…

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4 Responses to Two for the road

  1. NandaNanda says:

    I really like the idea that you see them struggling – deciding – that working at it is worth doing; b/c of the fact that they do know one another’s broken places so well, and love nonetheless.

    Also, the ‘ugly Americans’ (and their tyrannical daughter) ring just true enough to be funny.

    Let’s face it: The stars, the stagecraft, and the scenery all make for great eye-candy, too…This was the perfect cinematic getaway on a rainy Friday night. Thanks, TT!

  2. Avatartitus says:

    Sure thing, Nanda. I agree about the struggle–maybe that’s the good thing about the moving back & forth in time, you get a sense of who they are & have been over the years. It bears some of the burden that would otherwise fall on the happy end, to make sense of how they can be happy.
    So far as I understand the story, the guy has what today would be called commitment issues. The unpleasant, ugly virtues by which we live our daily lives do not appeal to him nor is he habituated to them–he is not for order & caring & drudgery. In a way, it makes sense: Who would say anything but desire is the teacher of happiness? It’s required for a happy ending. But he treats people badly, there is no getting around it. Pretty good show of the lighter side of what went on in the ’60s.
    The woman, however, seem just ok up until she betrays him. She bears suffering without hatred; she is more human, & more accommodating. She does not seem to deserve her fate at all.
    It takes more than a little work for the story to show why this guy should deserve such luck, & twice, after he endeavors so manfully to throw it away-

    • NandaNanda says:

      As it has ever been, and shall ever be…The absurdities and small joys are what kept me watching. That proto-typical American couple made me cringe – and laugh myself silly. You’re right about deserving the gifts in our lives, especially when we don’t see/accept them as such. But grace is like that, isn’t it? (The theology-geek rides again. Grin.)

      I finished watching Wes Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel” as an antidote to “American Sniper” recently…Purely for escapist reasons. What do you think of it? Of Anderson in general? Thanks for the continuing conversation!

  3. Avatartitus says:

    I think you’re right about grace–in this case, I think part of the problem is that the gift is freely offered. The man may believe that he has to earn it in some way for it to be real–this does happen to folks…

    As for Mr. Anderson–you can find my review here–I went back & read it–it seems complicated, obscure, but if you’ve seen the movie, it might give you something to think about…

    I believe Mr. Anderson tries, but I am not sure he really knows much about movies. When I was somewhat younger, I liked Royal Tenenbaums. It’s a story about how difficult it is to find love & what a curse freedom is. Mr. Hackman does a job of portraying a man who enjoyed freedom rather too much, & whose strikingly talented kids all suffered as a result. It also suggests America is not the right place for certain types of people–artists need popularity & a kind of popular attention with which to contend–Americans do not care about them enough to make it possible for them to bloom.

    Have you seen his Darjeeling limited? It is funny, in a rather quiet way, & beautifully shot–it is set in India & has a rather better grasp of humanity than his previous work.

    Glad to talk to you again–go to the front page for my new, thought-provoking piece!

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