It’s not difficult at all to find television representations of marriages, whether you’re looking in the first “Golden Age” (the 50s) or the Second (The 00s). As an enduring feature of human civilization, marriage has provided opportunities for historical perspective, sociological inquiry, and dramatic treatment. One of the bedrock genres of network and cable television has been the husband and wife relationship, from Desi and Lucy through Archie and Edith up to Mike and Molly. Sometimes these marriages are working class – Dan and Roseanne – and sometimes white collar – Cliff and Claire. Traditional marriages of the kind that Rob and Laura had have given way to more experimental ones like the “marriage” of Will and Grace. In almost all cases the central characters are married with children, their lives embedded in stereotypical two-child structures or in wacky extended families that are today supposedly more normative, much to the chagrin of marriage traditionalists.
Among its many accomplishments, “long form” television has offered us riveting portraits of couples whose relationships unfold over time rather than being reiteration of the same dynamic in one hour set-pieces. Part of our fascination with the cable series is our captivation with the vicissitudes of the contemporary marriage set against a rich social background: Walt and Skyler in Breaking Bad, Don and Betty/Megan in Mad Men, and Tony and Carmela in The Sopranos. In all of these mega-hits on serial television the dramatic lifting is done mostly by the besieged male with a professional life, albeit one deadening to soul or body or both. And it’s also possible to imagine that the show would not suffer if the children were written out of the script.
It’s more difficult to find images of marriages in the movies. Classical Hollywood and today’s independent film makers have been more interested in courtship than marriage, a situation deepened by teenage audiences who, when they’re not interested in seeing things blowing up are interested in seeing their contemporaries peers getting it on. As is the case in many television sitcoms like Malcolm in the Middle, the marriage of the parents is in the margins of the coming-of-age tale, often held up for satiric treatment.
Furthermore the intimacies of marital relationships seem too puny for the big screen, even when the big screen is in the viewer’s home media center. The biblical epic, the war story, the natural or man-made catastrophe, the courtroom drama, and the contact with aliens piece all demand a large canvas. You’d have to go back forty years to find a winner in best film category in which marital relationships were front and center. In 1979 Kramer vs. Kramer won best picture; it was about a fractious divorce. In 1980 Ordinary People took home the honors; it was about a couple and one son dealing with the accidental drowning of another. And in this century, the pickings are just as thin. In 2009 the Coen brother’s A Serious Man was nominated (but who remembers that quasi-autobiographical account of the filmmakers parents in suburban Minneapolis?) and the next year The Kids Are All Right (a film about a crisis point in the relationship of a lesbian couple raising two children, each “fathered” by the same sperm donor.) was not really in contention for best picture.
Although the examples in international cinema are not much more plentiful, one has a greater chance of finding adult stories about adults for adults, especially if you look not to best picture nominees and winners but if you look in the original screenwriting categories where one can find outstanding but rarely seen films like Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s The Separation.
Three recent European films, one now in limited theatrical release, make for a wonderful trilogy of “scenes from marriages.” Additionally they offer us depictions of marriages at different stages. Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight (2013) portrays an American writer and his French wife, in their early forties, who, after nine years, have the opportunity for marital reassessment while on a vacation in Greece. [Before Midnight is the third film about Jesse and Celine who meet randomly on a train to Vienna in 1995 – Before Sunrise -- and reconnect in Paris in 2004 – Before Sunset.] Le Weekend (2014) offers us a portrait of two teachers from Birmingham, now in their early 60s, who return to Paris where they spent a honeymoon week. Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012), the starkest film of the three, captures the last weeks in the life of an octogenarian couple, both retired piano teachers, as the husband fulfills his vow to help his terminally ill wife die at home.
The films are of a piece because they are informed by a common sensibility: they believe that couple communication is worth plenty of screen time. And the conversation is often interesting because these articulate pairs are from the same cultured class and know the power and traps of language. Additionally, these films foreground the marital relationship, compressing it into a few days or weeks, and, for the most part, banish children and friends and acquaintances to the periphery. At the start of Before Midnight, Jesse sends his son by a previous marriage back to his mother in New York and we learn that their twin daughters, conceived nine years earlier are with her mother. In Le Weekend Nick and Meg quarrel about many things, including a prodigal son who wants to move back in with mum and da. In Amour, the Georges and Anne’s busy adult daughter travels from London to Paris to convince her father to move his wife into an assisted living facility – he resists – and she is seen no more.
Le Weekend, the most recent film of the three, may remind viewers of The Exotic Marigold Hotel. It’s easy to imagine either Meg or Nick leaving England and joining seven countrymen and women who are seeking post-career adventure in mystical Indian. The couple comes to Paris for reinvigoration but start from a place of depression and restlessness. Nick, once a promising philosopher-academic has settled into a life of mediocrity, teaching at a decidedly downscale public institution. He has been asked to take an early retirement because he has confronted a minority student with caring more about her hair than her studies, failing to realize, in an age of multi-culture consciousness, that hair is a badge of cultural pride. Meg, a teacher of French at a comprehensive secondary school, is fed up with her job and her duties as department chair. The retired life is enticing and terrifying. How to fill the vast future space? Write the ultimate academic novel? Minister to the poor in the Paris suburbs? Drink oneself to death?
In the meantime they quarrel –often ritualistically and playful, at times menacingly – about a host of issues. Meg chastises Nick for choosing the threadbare hotel that once served them well for their honeymoon but now looks shabby. She relocates the couple in a posh hotel where she fearlessly empties the cash refrigerator, much to the concern of the budget conscious Nick. They confront what for many couples is the elephant in the room, the infrequency of sexual intimacy. And Meg both sympathizes and mocks what David Brooks calls a bobo status. Nick is an example of a bourgeois bohemian (bobo), a 60s leftist- anarchist whose dreams of social change and personal transcendence have not materialized but whose physical comfort has been achieved. Though there’s always worry about whether the state pension will be adequate. Daily middle-class concerns break in to their second honeymoon; Nick’s desire to talk about kitchen tile choices ruins any chance he has seduce his wife.
Just at the point where we may have had enough of this contentious couple, they have an encounter with an old protégé of Nick, an American philosophy student who has married a rich, French trophy wife, 20 years younger than he, and who lives a self-described exciting transatlantic life. Invited to Morgan’s mansion, Nick and Meg have a chance to bear their souls to someone other than their spouses – Nick has a revealing conversation with Morgan’s teenage son while Meg flirts with Morgan’s publisher. While Morgan’s effusive praise for his former mentor hardly provides them with the jump start for restoring their relationship, these others offer necessary perspective. We are still uncertain that this is a marriage built to last, but we have some confidence that they’ll be able to return to Birmingham in a state of cease-fire.
Although these films are best enjoyed and appreciated by viewers whose age is similar to those of the couples, these are films for all viewers, and, maybe most importantly, by those for whom marriage is still in the future.
The title of this blog comes from the six hour series that Ingmar Bergman did for Swedish TV in 1973. The drama was later shortened for theatrical release. In many ways it’s the point of origin and measuring stick for the three films described above.