Two for the Road (1967) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
15Jan/110

Two for the Road (1967)

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

"They don't look very happy."
"Why should they be? They just got married."

Danny LIKETwo for the Road can easily be called one of the most complex and daring American films of the 1960's, and perhaps one of the most insightful films ever made solely about the institution of marriage. From beginning to end, it's a film that doesn't shy away from complex emotions, both in joy and sorrow.

Absent-minded, proud, and wholly blunt Mark Wallace is married to razor sharp Joanna. They banter back and forth, sometimes playfully, sometimes coated in acid. She enjoys deflating his pompousness, he sees her as an obstacle.  They're on a trip across France for the umpteenth time, and on their way to a house party at a house that Mark designed. Neither seem to be thrilled. The topic of divorce comes up in between icy silences, and, slowly, we watch their relationship unfold.

The film takes place over five distinct time periods, each chronicling a trip through the French countryside at different times in their lives. One follows them as they first meet and fall in love while hitchhiking, the second follows them as newlyweds tagging along with a nightmarish family of three, the third finds them as older and preparing for their child, one with said child, and the last when they're older and mulling on that possibility of divorce. The storylines interweave with a clever grace, as cars from different time periods intersect with their past and future selves, sending the characters on a journey through the bitter highs and the cheerful lows in a loosely connected orchestration of emotions.

One can mistake Two for the Road as sentimentalist and even bourgeoisie in its intentions-- the richer they become, the more miserable-- but the film is careful not to point to these as the causes, but merely incidental. Mark's career ambitions allows him to escape Joanna's barbs, and Joanna's child allows her to escape the feelings of abandonment she gets once Mark's career becomes his new love. That Mark builds a resort where they spent one of their first bliss-filled nights both underlines and highlights the fundamental tear in their life.

There's fun imagery to delve into, too. Symmetrical splits as they fight over a boiled egg incident, and, in one scene, the outline of Hepburn begging for forgiveness and a return to their marital existence framed through harsh wooden bars. Director Stanley Donen seems to indulge himself in numerous shots of Finney towering over both Hepburn and the viewer-- his over sized ego and sense of self clawing even the film away from his relatively diminutive wife.

Both eventually take lovers, Mark's only incidental and Joanna's more threatening. He thinks things have devolved its because they had their daughter, she thinks its because he loves his work. It's more complex than that, and to the movie's credit it doesn't take sides. Both of them are culpable for their mutual destruction... and possible salvation.

This film (outside of a few moments in maybe The Secret People) is the only time where Hepburn plays something other than cheery or thoughtful; moments of Two for the Road let her be absolutely wicked, deflating Finney with a nasty glee that echos Bette Davis at her most catty.

In Hepburn's canon, this directly falls into the more realist line of her pictures, like Roman Holiday (as realist as a story of a princess on the loose can be) and The Children's Hour. This is her third film with director Stanley Donen (after the forgettable Funny Face and the classic Charade), and it's obvious to see how much she trusts him; other than William Wyler, no other director got to steer away from the Hepburn veneer as much. Donen, through his commentaries and interviews, indicates his feelings for Hepburn might have been a little more than platonic, but gives her due respect: she's a colleague he respected and admired.

Of course, it can be more fun trying to read into this relationship and the movies it produced. Two joyous, one finally mournful.

But that's selling the rest of the creative crew short. The script from Frederic Raphael keeps the balance between the time periods gracefully, and the film's music from Henry Mancini does a great job of sounding like a cohesive score, even as the film whiplashes about. It sounds ahead of its time in many ways, eschewing the bigger music of the 60's and turning to the hollow mutedness that would characterize the scores of the 70's.

But the film itself is just as introspective as it is forward thinking. The bruised ideals of the 1950's are on aching display in this marriage, and the film is one of the first dealing with the post-war generation's musings upon itself. Marriage, kids, success... is that really all there is?

The end for Two for the Road is one of its strengths, as it avoids easy answers and gives the characters room to talk out their problems. They don't reach solutions, but a compromise. Isn't that what relationships boil down to?

The movie may end with a kiss, but it's the final, whispered nothings that drive home who these people really are and what their relationship really is.

"Bitch," he grins.

"Bastard," she smiles.

Posted by Danny

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