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Love and marriage at the movies

Discussed in this essay:

I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies, by Jeanine Basinger. Knopf. 432 pages. $30.

Before Midnight, directed by Richard Linklater. Sony Pictures Classics. 108 minutes.

Couples speak their own language, an invented tongue that deepens or dies out over time. Couples in the movies must convince us of this, their culture of two, whose hidden etymologies extend far below what is said or shown. It is a task undertaken in the hope of making love real for an audience; but not too real, not so real as to spell out in full what exists privately and provisionally — a vocabulary as feathered and elusive as a bird of paradise dancing, under some distant jungle cover, for his mate. A viewer should only pick up the accent, recognize its counterpart in her own life, perhaps even find some relief from whatever silence or tangled syntax is waiting at home.

Real but not too real, writes Jeanine Basinger in I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies, is how we like our on-screen romance. Marriage, a somewhat other story, is both the driver and the obstacle of much romantic narrative. In her discussion of the marriage movies generated by Hollywood, Basinger identifies a central paradox: the best ones satisfy both the desire for marriage and the desire to escape marriage.

Beginning in 1934, one of those desires had a clear mandate. A clause of the Motion Picture Production Code (known as the Hays Code), enforced as part of a Catholic-driven campaign to clean up the cinema and ward off government censors, stated that in any Hollywood movie, “The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld.” Over the previous two decades, Hollywood had developed its own, equally clear perspective on the matter, knocking out a spate of silent comedies, Basinger writes, that “presented marriage as hell.” For storytellers under the Hays Code, the only thing worse than hell was a happy marriage. What’s the point of a picture where love and sex, the movies’ dirt-flecked, dangling carrots, have already been peeled and paired with house vinaigrette? “Embrace happy marriage in real life,” Basinger quotes Frank Capra as saying, “but keep away from it onscreen.”

Basinger devotes the bulk of her book to the Hays Code period, roughly the 1930s through the mid-1960s. The cover photo is a black-and-white publicity still of James Stewart and Carole Lombard taken for their 1939 film Made for Each Other. The couple are in profile, their eyes cast toward an unseen horizon, ahead and slightly up — Stewart amenable to what he sees, Lombard ecstatic in key-lit surrender, head back, lips parted, hair breaking down her back in sculpted waves. You might not guess, given the photo’s richly shadowed glamour, that Made for Each Other was, as Basinger suggests, a new kind of marriage movie, one designed to be “realistic.”

The quotes are Basinger’s, and they come and go throughout her rough articulation, in I Do and I Don’t, of the real and the realistic in marriage movies. It’s often said that only those two people sharing a relationship know its real story, but anyone who’s been one of those two people might point out that such knowledge is far from guaranteed. The pursuit of what’s realistic on-screen, then, begins from a point of flat impossibility, and presses on — one might say romantically — with that in mind. And yet marriage stories, in reflecting a social contract whose terms and clauses are well known, require a certain correlation with the world. It was with movies like Made for Each Other that Hollywood began to engage directly with a subject that until then had served as a pretense for broad comedy and cautionary tales. “To find dramatic purpose,” Basinger writes, the marriage movie

had to become negative about itself in a positive way. It had to both link to and escape from reality, and it had to remember that the audience already knew its secrets.

Stewart and Lombard are already married when we join them, just two kids in a crowded New York City apartment, taking on malignant bosses, meddling in-laws, money woes, health crises, children, and other grave disappointments. They struggle to the point of a split, and there ask the question Basinger says is posed by every “true marriage movie”: What happened to us? The idea is that the audience both does and doesn’t know; it’s a question traditionally resolved without the benefit of a real answer.

Basinger describes a narrative framework durable enough to both entertain and engage with its times, but with the collapse of the studio system the ground beneath her history gives way. I Do and I Don’t dispatches with what Basinger calls “The Modern Era,” the mid-1960s to the present, in only fifty of its more than 400 pages. One senses this snub coming as soon as Basinger draws Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road, a 1967 release, into her early discussion of Made for Each Other. Calling Two for the Road “an allegedly more sophisticated and modern” update of the Made for Each Other template, Basinger notes that Donen’s bittersweet look at the life of a couple, played by Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney, takes place in a sexier world, a world with “no real need for the couple to be married or build a home together,” where the “old romantic notions about marriage are now unsophisticated.”

The Hays Code, flouted and ignored throughout the 1950s and ’60s, was finally abandoned in 1968. Cinematic conventions were also loosening, so that a director like Donen could experiment with structure, cutting his movie into achronological pieces. “A marriage story — for a 1967 audience — can no longer be simple and, thus, linear,” writes Basinger. And so, after showing us Hepburn and Finney as a pair of tragic cosmopolitans more than a decade married, Donen depicts the pair in a series of Befores, beginning with the earliest, the moment they meet. They face only one obstacle then — a certain Jacqueline Bisset — though the incompatibility that will grind between them through the years is already apparent. Hepburn is puppyish, desperate to love; Finney barks love down with prejudice, incensed that it exists. A thorny language binds them anyway. “What kind of people just sit like that without a word to say to each other?” Finney mutters when the new lovers spot a grim older couple dining in silence. Hepburn poses the same question years later, when that grim older couple is them. Each time the other makes the same reply: “Married people.” Later still, the sight of a similarly dour couple near Hepburn and her summer fling recalls her, in quick flashback, to that first exchange with Finney. Brightening suddenly, she blurts out the couple’s old punch line, but it’s Greek to this new him.

At every point the couple is on the move, tooling across Europe like upwardly mobile tramps. Donen juxtaposes scenes from six points in the past, often flipping between them for ironic effect. His idea, as he explains in a commentary track available on the DVD of the film, was to treat each period as part of an ongoing present, where a memory, in being remembered, assumes its own reality. Location shooting, reams of dialogue, and a Hepburn stripped of her usual couture helped relax Donen’s studio-bred style. He remains proud of a scene of the new, still playful couple on the beach at sunset; it was shot just once, in real time, two cameras rolling on a lowering sun. “End of romantic gesture,” Finney gasps, having carried Hepburn a few highly cinematic steps across the sand. “That didn’t last very long!” she laughs. There is throughout the film but especially in that earliest sequence some sadness in watching Hepburn, by 1967 in her late thirties, play the ingenue she indeed was in 1953. Sadder still is when she appears most like her Roman Holiday self, living news of how even the loveliest memories fade, and fold together.

“It was as close as we could get to the way we think marriages survive,” says Donen of Two for the Road and its experiments toward greater realism, or at least frankness, in depicting married life. The film ends in the present, with a corking fight in yet another car crossing yet another European border. The picturesque settings allowed Donen to try something new: translating a sense of the couple’s “life at home” through interaction — their shared language — alone. Rather than a happy ending, Two for the Road closes with a bit of dialect: “Bitch.” “Bastard.” Kiss.

“If you tell the truth about people getting married, unfortunately they do not live happily ever after,” Donen says on the DVD. “If they’re fortunate they live together ever after. But they have to have their complications worked out between them.” Post-Code generations could not complain, as the one or two before them had, that marriage was not what the movies had led them to believe. (Donen, a self-professed sucker for happy endings, married five times.) That secret was out and available at matinee prices. We knew about romance, too; we knew Cary Grant was not really coming, nor Steve McQueen, nor even Tom Hanks. There was no misunderstanding. Still, we sought clues to love’s whereabouts, its nature, and how it might survive.

In her consideration of the modern era’s “new reality” and “new morality,” from Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) to The Kids Are All Right (2010), Basinger draws a connection between marriage’s waning relevance and a lack of persuasive, “realistic” marriage movies; she concludes with the failure of the marriage movie to either flourish or innovate. “Offscreen,” Basinger observes of the post-millennium, “marriage, once an inevitable social union for most people, had become a grab bag of movie plots, recycled as deep thinking. A kind of Reality Marriage Show.” One recalls at moments like this that Basinger has been married for forty-five years to, as she puts it in her author’s note, “the same saint of a guy.” One recalls this in part because one suspects a connection between the author’s reality and her determinations of realism. Whereas, for instance, the comfy pairings in Fargo (1996) and the TV series Friday Night Lights are credited with everyday authenticity, the labored grime of Blue Valentine (2010) and its ukulele tap dance make Basinger puke.

The story of how the director Derek Cianfrance came to make Blue Valentine, a nonlinear marriage story in the style of Two for the Road, is as well known as the film itself. Cianfrance had hoped to shoot the project, about a young couple who fall in love and marry, then fall drastically out of love, across several years, but ultimately a few extra pounds and a shaved hairline sufficed; he also asked his actors to live together for a month, and encouraged long improvisations in place of scripted dialogue. Basinger singles out one such riff for special scorn: “There’s something contrived about the moment” when Michelle Williams shuffles along to Ryan Gosling’s impromptu rendition of “You Always Hurt the One You Love,” she writes, “a look-at-our-sweet-little-romance phoniness that illustrates the modern marriage movie’s inability to really believe in such things.” Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed singing “Buffalo Gals” in It’s a Wonderful Life had “authenticity. Gosling and Williams are talented, but their little song and dance is a self-conscious version of the earlier naturalistic ideas. It’s postmodern — and unreal, like the marriage they inhabit.”

Though I wouldn’t put it quite that way, there is in Blue Valentine a strain for authenticity so grimly pronounced that, more than story or character, it defines the film. Here, a fever for the “real” story, captured via “realistic” camera tics and acting style, backfires. If anything, the contemporary marriage movie wants too dearly to believe “in such things,” but must contend with times too self-conscious, and movie-conscious, for their own good. Gosling, wielding his ukulele, warns that he has “to sing goofy in order to sing. Like I have to sing stupid.” Williams shucks along with matching irony.

Imperfect though they might be, Two for the Road and Blue Valentine make use of a distinctly modern, fire-with-fire strategy whereby time and its authentications help tell a love story for an audience trapped in unreal times. One filmmaker has now committed to this design more keenly than any other, following a couple’s story, in brief but constant interludes, across eighteen years. Eighteen years so far.

Beginning with the first one we see, most of the couples in Before Sunrise, the first in a trilogy of films by Richard Linklater that also includes Before Sunset and now Before Midnight, speak a foreign language. In this case it’s German passing between a middle-aged couple on a train, angry German, loud German, German whipped into a glottal frenzy of recrimination. It gets so bad that the young blonde (played by Julie Delpy) seated across the aisle relocates several rows back. This is Celine, and she’s about to meet Jesse (Ethan Hawke), her new aislemate, who is peeking over his Klaus Kinski memoir for a glimpse of her Bataille. Jesse asks Celine whether she knows what the couple were fighting about — he’s American, she’s French — and in their first exchange, before a fresh onslaught of German sends this new couple to the dining car, they talk about how nature provides, through his-and-hers cochlear degeneration, for couples to grow old together without killing each other. They don’t understand the Germans up front, and they do.

In the dining car, Jesse tells Celine about his latest idea, for a cable-access show that documents life in real time, life as it’s really lived in cities around the world, to be broadcast twenty-four hours a day for a year, no gaps, no stopping. Jesse, like Celine, is twenty-three. He doesn’t see why the image of a dog sleeping in the sun is beautiful but a man hunched over an ATM is pathetic. Celine envisions twenty-four hours of nose-picking interrupted by the odd bout of three-minute sex. That’s reality. It doesn’t matter anyway, Jesse says; the glitch is distribution, how to get all those tapes across the world without a moment lost, because “it would have to play all the time or else it just wouldn’t work.” It is 1994.

Before Sunrise was shot on location in Vienna, where Jesse persuades Celine to join him for an evening’s stroll before his early flight back to the States. Celine had been en route to Paris, returning home from a visit with her grandmother in Budapest. Later in the movie she reveals having fallen for Jesse early on, in the dining car, as he related a childhood memory about the death of his great-grandmother. Celine took the train that day, she says, because more than being afraid of flying she’s afraid of death, “twenty-four hours a day.” Jesse has been riding aimlessly for weeks, too embarrassed to fly home early and tell everyone that his girlfriend was enjoying her summer in Madrid somewhat more than either of them had anticipated. He was in search of a better story.

Throughout their evening together, Jesse and Celine exchange postures and philosophies, talking almost ceaselessly. Jesse is doting, garrulous, focused on Celine with intensity; Celine is dreamy, avoidant, a pale flame quick to pissed-off fireworks. As they pick along the cobblestones, flirty what-ifs (Celine: “If we were around each other all the time, what do you think would be the first thing about me that would drive you mad?”) segue into cynical diagnoses of parental relationships and passing references to Bosnia, feminism, and the media as a form of fascism, until the cycle repeats. They sally into the gender wars only to hasten quickly out. “There’s no end to this,” Celine warns. “Every couple’s been having this conversation for . . . ever,” agrees Jesse, placing the new lovers in an infinite tradition.

As the sun goes down they move from a streetcar to a cemetery to a Ferris wheel, where they kiss after acknowledging the romance (or romance-movie) gods. “I kind of see love as this escape for two people who don’t know how to be alone,” ventures Jesse later in the evening, echoing the antilove sermon Albert Finney delivers soon after meeting Audrey Hepburn in Two for the Road. Each woman makes much the same knowing reply: So, who was she? Yet Celine shares Jesse’s bluster: they scoff at romantic love and then confess to wanting it.

For both of them the present is a stubborn problem. Celine experiences life as a memory: there is no reality; reality has already happened. Jesse complains of an observational detachment, of taking notes for a future reality, one not happening now, not yet. We watch Jesse fall quietly in love, in a back alley, as Celine talks about the possibility of magic in a dumpy world, where the spaces between people charge with the effort of connection, of understanding. They may or may not have sex in a public park. They agree the night is a dream, too good for the usual thing, the phone calls and letters and long-distance flameout. They are different. They agree to meet in five years, one year, six months. (Finney proposes ten years, but Hepburn’s violent reaction — “You just want me to become a beautiful memory!” — elicits an actual proposal.) No phone numbers, no surnames. They part in the early morning light, settle on separate transports, and close their eyes to keep dreaming.

Rewatching Before Sunrise, it is hard to believe that Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke had not already diagrammed, with protractors and whiteboards, the arc of the next two films, released in 2004 and 2013. (Before Sunset sees the characters in new maturity; Before Midnight returns to them in dawning middle age.) Certainly one forgets, watching young Ethan Hawke quote Auden — “The years shall run like rabbits” — that youth is in fact morbidly obsessed with time, with itself. As the credits rolled I was visited by a memory of an evening’s mournful sobbing, alone in my bedroom, as I listened to Alphaville’s “Forever Young.” I was fourteen. I cried because I was young and one day would not be, but also because I was the thing — in that very moment — that it seemed everyone wanted to be, and I could see it all passing not into glory but much like the rest of life, as a series of television shows, chocolate-chip muffins, stilted conversations with adults and the opposite sex. The realness was crushing.

The middle installment finds Jesse, now in his early thirties, in Paris to promote a novel he based so closely on his night with Celine that it ends with their Vienna promise to reunite there in six months. Inquiring minds at his Shakespeare and Company reading want to know: Was it autobiographical? Did they meet again? The author replies that the reader’s answer to that question reveals whether he or she is a romantic or a cynic. Inquiring minds persist. The author demurs: “To answer that would take the piss out of the whole thing.” Then, as Jesse is describing his next book, in which a man remembers a woman so well that the memory joins with reality and “just like for an instant all his life is just folding in on itself, and it’s obvious to him that time is a lie,” Celine appears.

Before Sunset, a wiser, more melancholy film than its predecessor, leaped beyond the fears and expectations of even the most ardent Before Sunrise fan. (Jesse, we learn, kept their Vienna date; Celine meant to, but death — that of her Budapest grandmother — intervened. Their romanticism effectively kept them apart.) Sunset, too, ends with a punt: Celine and Jesse, having spent eighty minutes walking in Paris and trading disappointments — Jesse married out of duty to an imagined “best self” and now has a child; Celine, having lost faith in love, suspects she might be happiest on her own — wind up at her apartment, where she sings him a song (of her own composition, a moment of wonderfully corny sincerity) and fixes him some tea.

Your answer to the question of what happens next, I suppose, will reveal you as either a romantic or a cynic. We’ve had nine years to think about it, and wonder whether the story will — or should — continue. With Before Midnight, Linklater extends the narrative past the point of romantic precipice, a risk that shifts the weight of his project — and its ambition, as he has described it, to “carve out . . . some kind of hyperreality” — emphatically onto the work of time on the story of a life, or two lives.

Begin with the fact that Jesse and Celine aren’t actually married, a detail so small it’s conveyed in passing, more than halfway through the film. And note that they did have sex that first night. Twice. And again, for several days, after we left them at the end of Before Sunset, enacting the fictional ending Jesse tried for in his first novel, wherein the couple meet again, shag like field mice, then realize it’s all wrong and split. (His editor rejected it, but Celine approves in Before Sunset. “It’s more real,” she says.)

Almost ten years have passed, in the story and in real time. Jesse and Celine are in Kalamata, Greece, where they have spent the summer courtesy of Jesse’s literary benefactor, an old Brit. Before Midnight opens with Jesse putting his thirteen-year-old son, Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), on a plane back to Chicago, where he lives with his mother for most of the year. Jesse and Celine live in Paris with their twins, a pair of little girls stolen from a Botticelli fresco. Having shared, with the previous two films, in nearly every moment the pair has spent together, the audience is now confronted by a couple with a hidden history, one confined by what Basinger calls “the locked-room mystery” of a marriage. Yet in Kalamata the story makes space for three other couples: one young and torrid — a French girl and a local boy who make do with Skype sex and cheerfully acknowledge their relationship’s inevitable end; another settled in pragmatic middle age; and a third platonic — the benefactor and his elderly lady friend, at one point shown seated together, in a tender, extended two shot, speaking in their common tongue.

Slivers of Celine and Jesse’s history, and of their home life, infuse Before Midnight: job woes, custody battles, relocation, postpartum, possible infidelities, chicken pox. But there is no danger of encountering such details as anything more than artful background, much less of catching a glimpse of the couple’s brand of dish soap. For all their chosen fidelities, the Before films are bound by formula: First, make it pretty. Vienna, Paris, and now the Peloponnese — Euro Disneys of romance. Make the central couple witty and vivacious, sometimes cloyingly so, given to heady self-observation and suspiciously complete sentences (though in Before Midnight their repartee is revived only to be undercut). And shoot them always peregrinating through settings enveloped in the pollen haze of predusk sunlight known to cinematographers as “magic hour.” In its seeming return to that same hour, the trilogy can’t help but recall Hepburn and Finney recalling their own magic hour, their own Mediterranean splendor in the sand.

So this isn’t realism, exactly, despite a certain emphasis on the real. Hawke and Delpy remain the prime objects of credibility: they have aged. In any light they appear to be a couple in their early forties. Jesse might have retired his Neptune Records T-shirt fifteen years ago; Celine’s iPhone case has a retro-hip cassette-tape design. Returning from the airport, Jesse drives while Celine records their daughters sleeping “like conjoined twins” in the back seat. They’ll remember this summer much differently, she says. As will Hank, having managed his first kiss, with a local girl. “What if they end up spending their whole lives together?” asks a wistful Jesse. Celine erupts with derision, reinforcing the films’ tradition of floating cliché romantic sentiment for the purpose of flattening it, as well as the suspicion that Celine’s romanticism is more dangerous for being closeted.

That early conversation on the road — an unbroken thirteen-minute shot — sets up the film’s ostensible conflict: Jesse longs for more time with Hank. “I just don’t think I can keep doing this,” he says of their semiannual visits, letting the solution — a move to Chicago — hang in the air. Celine responds badly, as she tends to throughout the film. If not, as Jesse calls her, “the fucking mayor of Crazytown,” she is at times a solid candidate. The sparks of her splendid cri de coeur, late in Before Sunset, in which she rails against Jesse’s theft of her memories, the exes who married others, love’s incompatibility with reality, the absurd concept of soul mates — “I always act like I’m detached,” she cries, “but I’m dying inside” — are somewhat less splendid in the context of a nine-year relationship. But then so is Jesse’s good-guy cajoling and his cool, patronizing calls for reason, appeals that seem always to work in his favor.

The Hank question, which lingers over an afternoon and evening’s leisure, triggers a championship fight in a hotel room booked for the couple by their Greek friends, the prescribed setting for a “romantic” final night, red wine and his-and-hers massage included. (Presumably the friends missed Blue Valentine and its broken couple’s dreadful night in the “Future Room” of what Williams calls a “cheesy sex motel.”) At the fight’s apex, Celine rages against bourgeois gestures to romance and the room’s denatured chic — she wanted “something quaint, like the real Greece.” Instead, trapped in the closest these films have come to a shared domestic space, Jesse and Celine say terrible things to each other. Common, vicious things. He’s no Henry Miller, in bed or on the page; she’s a harpy with a persecution complex and a feta-stuffed ass. Much of the fight takes place with Celine’s dress peeled down to her waist, her breasts a bored insult to their attempted lovemaking. The scene is ugly and uncomfortable even as it pays homage to a realism-driven tradition of similarly ugly and uncomfortable on-screen blowouts (from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to a bottomless Julianne Moore in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts). Children are among the problems Basinger identifies as a staple of the marriage narrative. Here children are reality, arrived at last, and reality remains a problem.

Throughout Before Midnight, Celine and Jesse seem to worry along with us: Can they live up to their story? Or will being together take the piss out of the whole thing? This worry is the engine that pulls the Hank question along. Celine tests Jesse constantly, daring him into the present; he performs for her, evasive, still in search of a better story. Amid the hotel room shouting, Celine makes tea, recalling across nine years the first, precipitous cup she made for him. This time it’s just for her, and it goes cold.

“Life is weather. Life is meals,” James Salter wrote in Light Years, his 1975 novel spanning twenty years in a couple’s life. This spring, members of a certain generation, the one that has lived alongside these movies, swore especial oaths about where and with whom they would see Before Midnight. Mine is not a cohort known for its romanticism, but there we were, still looking and hoping, along with Jesse and Celine, for something real. It’s a quest that has come to define Linklater’s career: his upcoming film, Boyhood, has been in production for more than a decade now. In it Ethan Hawke plays the father of a young boy, whose maturation takes shape across brief segments shot yearly beginning in 2002. Linklater’s vision for the story — “You just jump on at one point and jump off at another, and a bunch of years will have gone by” — echoes the Before films, pursuing even more explicitly what they offer in already overwhelming measure: Life itself, passing. Life in fragments now merged with our own memories — stolen glances in a record store, on a stairwell, watching a Greek sunset. Life, as Salter has said, that “goes on for years, decades, and in the end seems to have passed like things glimpsed from the train.”

Before Midnight and its unmarried married couple bear out several of Basinger’s precepts, down to the ending’s trick resolution: real but not too real. Combined with its predecessors it also confirms, in a way that’s completely new, that love survives much the way marriages do, which is to say over time. That love exists in the spaces between bodies, where energy is exchanged, in memory, in reality, at the movies. That true connection is rare, but that there is magic — perhaps all of life — in the attempt, and that it continues.

is the author of This Is Running for Your Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

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