“Marriage is hard work,” writes Rosamund Pike’s Amy in “Gone Girl,” the latest film from David Fincher, which had its global release last Friday, riding on a salvo of praise from its New York Film Festival premiere (our review is here). Even those among us who haven’t tied the knot, exchanged the vows and made that wild bid for a happily-ever-after, know that sustaining a successful marriage is tough. We all have our parents, relatives and friends, to remind us of this fact of life even we have no first-hand experience. So perhaps it’s not surprising that there are an embarrassing number of films that tackle the sensitive subject head-on, many of them aiming for the jugular in an attempt to reveal something new about the human condition under matrimonial duress. Fincher joining the ranks of the many master filmmakers who have dissected marriage in their films gives us an opportunity to discuss ten examples, wholly different but no less effective, of cinematic investigation into the brittle structure of this most embedded of social institutions.
Before we get into the thick of things, let’s get something out of the way. Put “marriage” and “movies” in the same cinephile-y sentence and thoughts will inevitably land on Ingmar Bergman’s 5-hour opus “Scenes From A Marriage.” If you were to argue that ‘Scenes’ is the quintessential film about marriage whose heights every other film, before or after, strives to reach, some of us wouldn’t argue back. But where’s the fun in going with such a consensus pick, and we decided early on that Bergman’s classic would not be part of our list, but let’s suggest that its spirit looms large throughout. We also stay away from marital movies that specifically deal with divorce (“Kramer Vs. Kramer,” “The Squid And The Whale,” “A Separation”) or affairs (“Brief Encounter,” “Love In The Afternoon”), because they don’t look as deeply into the organization of marriage as they do at the external elements that threaten to break it, making them good examples for a different kind of article.
The ten films below have been chosen for the unique approach of their respective directors, all plowing the same fertile field, so that along the way a few parallels crop up between them. Where Fincher’s film fits with the themes and tones of this selection we’ll leave it to you to judge, for now here are our picks, and the reasons we think they add a new take to an old, old institution.
“Blue Valentine” (2010)
The tag line for Derek Cianfrance’s sophomore feature is craftily simple: “A Love Story.” By now, we all know what kind of scarily realistic love story “Blue Valentine” is, and to what lengths Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams go in terms of performance in order to depict the veracity of an evaporating romance in a turbulent marriage. This is the youngest film on here, yet with its unique structure (one that is not utilized by any of the other nine) of swinging back and forth between the aching romance of courtship and moments of marital breakdown and bitterness, Cianfrance crafted one of the most strikingly mature movies in contemporary American cinema. By having his actors improvise their dialogue, making them move in together for a month and pretend to be a real family, shooting parts of the film on 16mm (though that could be for more frugal reasons, still the aesthetic achieved is spot-on), and channeling experience from his background in documentaries, Cianfrance managed to get a kind of honesty and insight few films attain. The pangs of jealousy (see: the car scene when Cindy tells Dean how she ran into an old flame), and the subtle power struggles that stem from, among other things, their professions (she’s a nurse, he’s a painter) are incredibly vivid in their exposure of human insecurity, thanks in large part to the two actors’ total trust in their director, which allowed them to soak into their characters’ lives completely. The scenes set in the present depict only two days in a marriage, a microscopic look at the cataclysmic consequences of emotional neglect that is a device fairly often employed in cinema. But “Blue Valentine’s” authentic discourse on a marriage shriveled from lack of passion is overall quite exceptional.
“Revolutionary Road” (2008)
A few years before we saw Cindy and Dean’s contemporary marriage hit on the rocks, Sam Mendes directed his then-wife Kate Winslet and her “Titanic” co-star Leonardo DiCaprio in an adaptation of Richard Yates’ period novel “Revolutionary Road.” No film in recent memory (certainly none here) reveals the kind of open wounds that suburban shackles can inflict on married life as cuttingly as this portrait of the Wheelers, Frank (DiCaprio) and April (Winslet), firmly imprisoned in the 1950s. In order to justify her desire to move to Paris, where she could work and he could have the time to figure out what he really wants to do in life, April says “We bought into the same ridiculous delusion, this idea that you have to resign from life and settle down the moment you have children.” This double whammy of loss of individuality and freedom is a fundamental fear in marriage, and just as Frank and April have been punishing themselves for it, so too have many other couples on this list—subconsciously or otherwise. Which means that to a commitment-phobe, this film is probably scarier than “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” ‘Road’ passed through plenty of potential directors, but it’s hard to imagine the film under someone other than Mendes, who had already depicted one toxic marriage in “American Beauty.” But while the Burnham marriage from that film served as part of the decoration, Yates’ novel gave Mendes the opportunity to use marriage as the center stage on which to peel away an idealized American façade and reveal the cracks. Where ‘Valentine’ is intimate, ‘Road’ is claustrophobic, an atmosphere Mendes achieved by shooting in a real house and keeping the camera at uncomfortable arm’s length from his leads. Topping it off are the two superstars Winslet and DiCaprio, so alarmingly good at despising one another that you can’t imagine they’re the same two people who set a new standard of romance in “Titanic.”
Another adaptation of a novel, this time “A Ghost At Noon” by Alberto Moravia, generates an entirely different interpretation of similar disenchantment under the artistic auspices of Jean-Luc Godard. The Frenchman’s first foray into commercial filmmaking saw him take Moravia’s novel about a marriage falling apart and turn it into a dozen things simultaneously, thanks to his fluency in the language of cinema. It’s a mythical parable, a look at the internal mechanics of filmmaking, an assessment of the weight of compromised artistry on the intellect, and a lifetime’s worth of lust embodied in Brigitte Bardot at the peak of her prowess. “Contempt” is all these things and more, but the heartrending core of the film remains the husband vs. wife dynamic in Camille (Bardot) and Paul’s (Michel Piccoli) caged marriage. Structured into three distinct acts, it’s the second one in Paul and Camille’s apartment that sees Godard at the highest point of his celebrated career, using space and tracking shots to depict two lovers torn between desperation and boredom, both too proud or stubborn, or both, to get on the other’s wavelength. Part of the brilliance is that it’s impossible to fault one side more than the other. She accuses him of stealing ideas from other movies, he undermines her intelligence (calling her a “complete idiot” at a later point), and all of that after a sensuously romantic opening sequence where his idolatry of her femininity is encapsulated in three fatal words: “Totally…tenderly…tragically.” With the assistance of George Delerue’s unforgettable “Theme de Camille” swooping from the soundtrack, Godard manages to make boredom, perhaps the most toxic poison of all for a marriage, into an artfully tragic and compelling affair, creating the most cinematic of all interpretations of matrimonial misery.
“Eyes Wide Shut” (1999)
Camille talks about doubt and the “false lucidity” of her marriage in “Contempt,” but this concept has never been as potently realized as it is in Stanley Kubrick‘s final film, “Eyes Wide Shut.” If we were to generalize and say “Blue Valentine” is concerned with the emotional, “Revolutionary Road” with the environmental, and “Contempt” with the intellectual, then “Eyes Wide Shut” is deeply rooted in the psychological realms of marriage. Real-life husband and wife (back then) Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman portray on-screen husband and wife Bill and Alice and, and together with Kubrick, they explore the nature of fidelity, that connubial villain. The clincher is that there is no physical affair, but the mere idea of infidelity drives a seemingly perfect family unit to the precipice of breakdown. The film’s most memorable moments are found in Bill’s nightly odyssey, as lost wanderer in an underground world of masked hedonism and carnal secrets, but it was of course his wife’s confession about a fleeting moment years ago that spurred him on his quest for answers to questions he didn’t even know how to ask. Kubrick died right after he finished editing “Eyes Wide Shut,” capping off arguably the most lauded filmography of all time with a film that saw his favorite theme of dehumanization masterfully applied to the landscape of marriage. That moment when the camera slowly zooms toward Kidman’s loving gaze (in a signature Kubrickian shot) directed at her husband, while Alice’s voice over repeats the nightmare orgy that drills into Bill’s psyche, is one of the finer examples of the genius at play here. The pathway to paranoia paved by jealousy is a universal spousal issue rearing its monstrous head in many films on this list, but it has never been as thrilling or engrossing as it with Kubrick.
“A Married Couple” (1969)
Stripping away the cinematic manipulation we’ve found in many of the films we’ve discussed so far, Canadian documentary filmmaker (or, to put it more aptly, observer) Allan King took to examining the insides of married life as realistically as possible. Which is to say, he found Billy and Antoinette Edwards, their child Bogart, and their dog Merton, took a camera and started shooting. The result is as down to earth as the title suggests. “A Married Couple” is an unscripted observation of a couple who have been together for eight years, married for one and a half of them (a line Antoinette makes sure to draw at one point), which never resorts to documentary tactics such as interviews or academically trained narrators. It’s as compelling as anything on this list, and even without the opening credit emphasizing “in a film by,” the dynamic between Billy and Antoinette sits on its own shelf of cinema: life imitating art at its most private and colloquial. It may be more dated than anything else on here, but it’s also the funniest and, in some ways, even more frightening than “Eyes Wide Shut” if only because we are watching the complexities of real life unfold before our eyes. Bickering over appliances (“your dreams of glory about this kitchen…”), arguing over why he’s always late for work or why she didn’t pick up Merton’s food as promised, these types of conversations would feel much too mundane elsewhere, but for King they are the fuel that drives his picture ever forward. In a quick hour-and-a-half, we familiarize ourselves with Billy’s and Antoinette’s imperfections, and align ourselves with their deep friendship, to such a degree that the ambiguous finale leaves us slightly dejected that the camera had to inevitably stop rolling.
“Husbands and Wives” (1992)
From life imitating art to art imitating life, we jump forward a couple of decades to Woody Allen‘s last film with his ex-partner Mia Farrow, “Husbands and Wives.” The film is a mirror image to King‘s. Allen directs his original screenplay of fictitious relationships as if a crew of sociology students decided to document the two principle couples around in their respective homes and on the streets of New York, interviewing them and their various partners whenever they get the chance. All for the purpose of understanding what happened to Gabe (Allen) and Judy’s (Farrow) marriage after their best friends Jack (Sydney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis) come by for a usual get-together and announce that they are separating. All of Judy’s insecurities about herself, her marriage, and Gabe’s deficiencies as a lover and husband bubble up to the surface and create a rift between the two, while Jack and Sally continue on their separate ways, seemingly enjoying being single (at first). “I think an older man does better than an older woman” Judy exclaims at one point, and age is certainly one of the biggest themes in “Husbands and Wives,” as it directly relates to the concerns of a middle-aged married couple. What sets Allen’s film apart from the pack is that, even though it’s the most directly influenced by Bergman’s ‘Scenes’ on this list, it’s still probably the funniest collision of four mid-life crises ever put on film. The artistic choice of structuring the story of these four people under the pretext of social study (we never find out anything about the interviewers or their true purpose), is at once refreshingly unique and increasingly witty.
“Journey To Italy” (1954)
If we’re talking realistic examinations of marriage in movies and you want to be able to point a finger at and say, “this one started it all, really,” look no further than Roberto Rossellini’s “Journey To Italy” starring his then-wife Ingrid Bergman and the debonair George Sanders as Katherine and Alex Joyce. Married for eight years, the Joyces are on their first vacation, though it’s “business” for him and “a little pleasure” for her. In truth, they are in Italy to oversee the selling of a relative’s house, and it’s not long before husband and wife come to a stark realization. “After eight years of marriage, we discover we don’t know anything about each other at all,” says a subjugated Katherine, to which Alex sardonically replies, “Yes, it’s a strange discovery.” It’s the type of discovery that threatens every marriage, and Rossellini’s screenplay, though shot through with ossified notions (“All men are alike!” et cetera.), is something of a foundation upon which all future films dealing with marital troubles are built. But what truly makes the film last through the decades is Rossellini’s direction and Bergman’s intense portrayal (undoubtedly inflamed by her own personal troubles with the very same man who was directing her). We’ve seen how the environment can dictate matters in “Revolutionary Road,” but here in ‘Italy,’ the milieu (the volcano Vesuvius, the charred city of Pompeii, romanticized Capri…) is used as a symbol for the state of a marriage, an incredible case of artistic foresight that can only occur with a master filmmaker. Katherine’s visit to the sulfur springs, where she learns about the process of ionization (“all you have to do is light a torch, and smoke increases everywhere”) is as intelligent and deeply emblematic of matrimonial tribulation as anything we’ve seen. No wonder Francois Truffaut called it “the first modern film.” We’d also wager Godard learned a thing or two from Rossellini before staging the tragedy of “Contempt” on the island of Capri.
Whereas Rossellini’s film slowly, systematically, builds towards the dreaded “D” word, Richard Forest (John Marley) tells his wife Maria (Lynn Carlin) as bluntly as you like right at the beginning of John Cassavetes’ “Faces:” “I want a divorce.” It feels out of nowhere, but we’ve already seen the two in hysterics, where he snapped at her mention of a “woman’s point of view,” and her in bed laughing at his crude jokes about vampires and zebra’s asses before an unsatisfied “good night.” She tries to laugh it off, but he’s dead serious, and for the next hour and a half of Cassavetes’ vicious, volatile, vigorous dissection of a marriage beyond the point of peril, we are witness to the ancestor of “Blue Valentine” and “Revolutionary Road.” Indeed, DiCaprio and Winslet may as well have studied “Faces” for the uncanny performances summoned by Marley and Carlin, while the signature cinéma vérité directorial style from Cassavetes must have been in the back of Cianfrance’s mind while making ‘Valentine.’ Nothing on this earth, however, can truly compare to the capricious atmosphere created in this masterstroke of filmmaking. Shooting for six months, and working on it for three years in post-production, Cassavetes’ in-your-face high contrast 16mm aesthetic is very much the point of “Faces” too, in which the innumerable close-ups emphasize the complexity beneath the simplicity of the “Faces” of the title. While most of the film sees Richard and Maria spending the night separated, he with prostitute Jeannie (Cassavetes’ wife Gena Rowlands) and she with the young and hip Chet (Seymour Cassel), the ambiance of dissatisfaction, delusion and pretense (pronounced in just about every bellow from every character we see), all pivots around the Frost marriage, until it culminates with both of them coughing in unison on the staircase, the toxicity of their relationship seemingly such that it starves the air of oxygen. When one of Maria’s friends says “I’m in love with my husband, how ‘bout that?” the surprise of being surprised at the remark hits like a ton of bricks. Love is an anomalous feeling in this most intensely felt film about marriage.
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966)
“You are cordially invited to George and Martha’s for an evening of fun and games,” reads the tagline for Mike Nichols’ feature debut, the screen adaptation of celebrated stage play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” And for a few brief moments, during the opening credits, as George (Richard Burton) and Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) walk hand in hand back home from a party, it’s like watching two peas in a loving pod. They enter, and the first words are spoken. “What a dump!” spits Martha, as she readies herself for another drink and the habitual battle of wits, supremacy, gender and marital politics with her equally embittered husband. Two peas in a pod they may be, but for these two aged veterans, any loving impulses are buried deep beneath layers and layers of vitriol and deception. Thanks to Ernest Lehman’s marvelous adaptation of Edward Albee’s stage play, ‘Virginia Woolf’ boasts the greatest screenplay on this list, and with the animalistic ferocity spewing out of Taylor and Burton as it does (like other examples here, the actors were married at the time in real life), Nichols’ direction could have easily fallen into the background. It doesn’t. Unbelievably it was Nichols’ first film, but he embellishes cinematically (close-ups, pans following a glass of whiskey, George and Martha framed within circular windows, and the like) enough to make it enter the higher echelons of films dealing with a “vile, crushing marriage” as Martha screams during the devastating climax. If “A Married Couple” is the funniest and “Husbands and Wives” the wittiest, ‘Virginia Woolf’ is far and away the most entertaining, even if it ends on a tremendously tragic note. More of an exorcism than an analysis, “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?” is especially note-worthy for using (never seen) children to uncover the depths of unhappiness.
“Make Way For Tomorrow” (1937)
Children are in some ways a presence in marriage even when they’re not present (“Contempt,” “Faces”). We’ve seen them filling a void (“Revolutionary Road,” “Blue Valentine“), as subjects for longing (“Journey To Italy”) and all of the above (“A Married Couple“). Even being shoved in the background (“Eyes Wide Shut,” “Husbands and Wives”) is a commentary in and of itself. In Leo McCarey’s “Make Way For Tomorrow,” the oldest film on this list, children are very much in the foreground and, unlike ‘Virginia Woolf,’ in a painfully realistic way. Recently re-discovered thanks to the Criterion Collection release, this forgotten classic from Hollywood is taken to be mostly about age and the generational gaps in a large family unit, but thanks to McCarey and screenwriter Viña Delmar, the film’s final thirty minutes directly align it as also being about a marriage sustained by bottomless love. Yes, after all the insidious rancor experienced, symbolized, perpetrated, and expressed in the prior films on this list, we end with a film that heart-wrenchingly affirms the heights two people can reach if their relationship survives all the turmoil. Lucy (Beluah Bondi) and Bark (Victor Moore) are in their 70s, a husband and wife who stare at each other, fret over each other’s well-being, write letters to one another and reminisce over their marriage of 50 years like a pair of lovesick school kids. Their five children are finally the cause of an ending that famously made Orson Welles cry (who, in turn, said the film can ‘make even stones cry’). But it’s the warm sensibilities of a director’s vision, and two unbearably tender performances from Bondi and Moore, that ultimately place “Make Way For Tomorrow” among the most touching films about a successful marriage. That is, at least, until the kids grow up.
There are many hundreds more we could have featured, and we are certainly not trying to set the ten films above in stone and stick fruitless labels like “essential” or “must-see” or “best-ever” on them. If you believe there is a glaring oversight (Antonioni fans, where you at?) by all means, take to the comments.
“The Face Of Another” (1966)
As there are countless other films attempting to reveal the inner most truths about what goes wrong (or right) inmarriage, there are those films which briefly touch upon the subject in the most inquisitive of ways. We’ve chosen to single out Hiroshi Teshigahara’s surreal, mind-bending sci-fi film “The Face Of Another” as one such curiosity and give it a special shout-out. The film mainly deals with the psychological and social consequences of a man’s facial reconstruction, using the popular motif of masks seen in a handful of films above (“Faces,” “Eyes Wide Shut”) as the core theme in a film about loss of self and loss of identity. It follows Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai), a man horribly disfigured and trying out a new face. In order to prove a point to himself, he decides to seduce his own wife (Machiko Kyo) as this “perfect stranger.” From the surgeon’s motto (“inferiority complexes dig holes in the psyche, and I fill them in”) to the wife’s declaration of “I have so many selves, I can’t even contain them all,” it’s not hard to interpret Teshigahara’s horror tale as a remark on the most dangerous enemy a marriage can have: insecurity of the self. It’s something that’s touched upon in every single film above, while McCarey’s “Make Way For Tomorrow” speaks volumes on the subject by having no trace of it in Bark and Lucy’s happy unity.