Two For The Road
dir. Stanley Donen
scr. Frederic Raphael
Commissioned by Pamela DeLeone
After sitting through Two For The Road, I’m sure even the ethereal, delicate Audrey Hepburn would agree: marriage is a motherfucker.
This process of writing reviews on commission has been interesting so far, and I’m only a few weeks into the experiment. My writing about film developed in a very strange organic way, starting with me only writing about what interested me, when it interested me, and nothing else. If anything, it was a hobby. It was a way of taking my mind off my creative work while still keeping it engaged in film theory. When I decided to actually buckle down and make writing about film my job, it was because I had young children and I wanted stability. Turning it into something that was done on the timetable of the studios and their marketing plans slowly but surely leached the joy out of what I was doing, and it started to affect the way I even thought about film. It was dangerous, and when I finally left HitFix, I was burned out, not sure I wanted to write about film or, frankly, much of anything.
There is something fundamentally weird about the entire endeavor of writing art criticism in the first place. It is an act of description. It is an attempt to capture the feeling of one experience and convey it in a totally different way. It is a fool’s errand, one I repeat every single time I sit down to talk about a movie… and I love it. I love it more now than I did when I began. I love it because I have come to view it as a thing that is not a book report, not a consumer guide to how you should spend your eight dollars, and not a punctuation mark on the end of someone’s release strategy for a movie. Film criticism stands separate from all of that at its best, and I feel lucky to have been reminded of that.
Sometimes, accepting that art is an imperfect way of conveying something is part of the process, and struggling to find a new way of conveying it can be thrilling for a filmmaker. When you’re someone like Stanley Donen, who started his career with On The Town, and who made one of the greatest movies of all time, Singin’ In The Rain, his fourth time at bat, it must have been fascinating to see how films evolved between the early ‘50s and the late ‘60s, and instead of watching it all roll by, he was right there in it, stretching and doing his best to add to the expanding vocabulary of film instead of just digging in and doing things the way he’d always done them. To be fair, there are moments even in something as broadly mainstream as Singin’ In The Rain that feel almost experimental, and it feels to me like Donen was always interested in finding a way to create a strong emotional reaction in his audience. He wanted you to feel, first and foremost, and that seems far more important to him than story or structure.
Imagine then, that you’re Donen in the mid-‘60s, and you’re watching this eruption of energy from England with an explosion of raw, emotional storytelling, and the movie Darling just flattens you. Frederic Raphael’s script for that film was an award-winner and deservedly so. It’s smart and honest and unsparing, and Donen must have felt lucky to get Raphael to collaborate with him on something as new as Two For The Road. Taken as a story, it’s simply about a married couple driving to a party together, about twelve years into their marriage, and fighting about things on the way to the party, during the party, and then after the party. That’s it. But the way it tells that simple story is what distinguished the film at the time, and even seen today, there’s a boldness to the storytelling that is all in service of trying to capture something piercing and true.
How does your memory work? Do you think of things chronologically? Because that’s not my experience. When I think of the past, it is often not voluntary. It’s something that hits you like a wave, and as you get caught up in it, other memories come rushing in around it. Memory is like a chain, or like a net, this piece connected to that piece, that piece connected to those, all of them somehow linked, even if the links make no obvious sense. There is a Proustian effort to wrestle the nature of memory to the ground in Two For The Road, a fragmenting of time that could easily be disorienting if done wrong.
How does love work? Is it a switch? When people talk about falling in love, what exactly are they talking about? What’s the moment that qualifies something as love? How do you define it? Is love transitive? What’s the difference between the love you have for a spouse and the love you have for a child? Why does love end? If it’s genuinely love, can it end? There is a shortcut to the way films depict love that we all accept, but it’s almost completely removed from the honest experience itself.
Between love and memory, Donen and Raphael basically picked two of the hardest things to honestly convey on film, and they knew that the language of studio movies wasn’t adequate to try and do what they wanted. For Donen, there was a way of doing things behind the scenes that was the same, but in pursuit of something new, and it’s startling that he was able to convince Audrey Hepburn to make the leap with him considering how carefully cultivated her movie star persona was, but I can’t imagine it would have been easy to convince anyone to play the role. Hepburn was 37 when the film was made, and she was as in-control of her image as anyone in the era. Her other movie that year, Wait Until Dark, was a more conventional “movie movie,” adapted from a popular play and wildly commercially successful when it was released. Small wonder. Wait Until Dark is pure thriller, pure candy, while Two For The Road is, to say the least, a bitter pill.
Hepburn was delicate as an onscreen presence. There was something about her that always felt like the world might break her if she ever had to deal with the reality of it. Her characters seemed to move through the world in bubbles, Disney princesses launched into the real world. The movies she made with Donen like Charade and Funny Face are fantasy, and happy about it. They are charming, like Hepburn, and they hinge entirely on that delicate charisma of hers. It never mattered much to me who they paired her with in films, because she was the one who drove whatever it was she was in. One of the most surprising things about her decision to make this film was the way it almost completely burned down all of that image-building, all in service of a film that ended up stiffing at the US box-office.
No matter. One of the things I love is when you talk to someone about a film and they light up at the mention of it, and Two For The Road is one of those films that makes certain people light up immediately. I’ve spoken to several people whose reaction to seeing it the first time was to watch it again as soon as possible, sometimes in the same day. I get it. That happens to me with movies, and sometimes I can’t even articulate why. Two For The Road doesn’t feel like any other film, and it’s not any one thing that makes it stand apart. There’s the performance by Hepburn as Joanna, which features shades she never played before that, and frankly never played again. She is confounding at times, in no small part because it is mystifying why she would fall in love with Mark, played by Albert Finney. Because the film takes place over a little more than a decade, they’re both playing a broad age range, and it’s interesting seeing how they distinguish the different eras of their life together. Finney was almost a decade younger than Hepburn, and he is perfect as the young, bullheaded version of Mark. He’s the very model of callow youth, and when he pontificates at Joanna, you get the feeling he’d monologue whether she was there or not. He blathers on about why marriage is terrible, he blatantly hits on one of the girls she’s traveling with before settling on Joanna because she’s the only one of her group who doesn’t get chicken pox, and he is flat-out mean to her in pretty much every single conversation. Wow. What. A. Prize. There’s the score by Henry Mancini, one of his very best, a gorgeous piece that adds a melancholy pulse to the entire affair. There’s the photography by Christopher Challis, and there are few things from the history of film that hit me in the aesthetic pleasure center the same way that ’60s De Luxe color Panavision photography does. There’s the remarkable work by editors Madeleine Gug and Richard Marden, who manage to make this crazy juggling act make sense, and it’s their work that serves as the spine that the rest of the great work hangs on. Without the sophistication of what they do, none of the rest of this matters.
It’s said that Hepburn was going through a turbulent patch in her own marriage when she made this film, and maybe that’s why her performance cuts so deep. While I may be mystified by the early parts of the relationship, when it begins to fall apart, it becomes very recognizable, indeed. Honestly, the experience of watching this film is odd because it almost feels designed to send you pinwheeling off down your own rabbit hole of memories. It gets so close to the way memory actually works that it is eerie. You see Mark and Joanna in a new car, driving, and they start talking about the first car they bought together, and tht memory leads to them talking about picking up a hitchhiker, which reminds them of when they were hitchhiking together when they first met, and that reminds them of their first morning together, but that reminds them of another morning where they stayed at the same place years later, but that reminds them of a fight they had, and another fight just like it, and the way they made up that time, and the time they didn’t, and they move forward and backwards through the years instantly, all of it happening at once. All you can do is follow the cues of the hair and the wardrobe to keep up, and even if you aren’t sure where each moment is grounded, that’s kind of the point. I know that every one of the major relationships I’ve had lives as both past and present within me. I am lucky today to finally be in a relationship where I feel both valued and valuable, where my partner genuinely accepts me as the flawed human being I am instead of some percentage of the person they will eventually make me become, and even so, I often find that some passing event or some scent or some location can throw me instantly back in time with the force of a carnival tilt-a-whirl. I can be present here today and still flash back to the apartment I shared with my first serious girlfriend, and I can look at the 17 year old cat asleep in the room with me now and flash on the kitten I lost a lifetime ago to a hungry coyote, and that thought reminds me of the end of one relationship and the shock and the anger, but also the start of that relationship and the promise and the potential, and that starts me thinking about first kisses, and the good ones and the bad ones and the ones I wish had led somewhere and the ones I wish I could take back. There’s a running thread in Two For The Road that Mark is terrible with cars, and pretty much anything he touches will explode or catch fire or roll off a cliff or just plain not work, and that makes me think of my dad and his luck with boats, and the way we kept buying them and they kept turning into distinct, delightful disasters. I remember storms at sea and sunken boats and being shipwrecked as a kid, and the memory of being rescued by the coast guard makes me think of a similar storm I drove home from in college, and that makes me think of the person I drove with, and that’s a new flood of memories, and it just constantly keeps churning and rolling, all of it together.
That’s what Donen was chasing in Two For The Road, and at its very best, that’s what the film does so well. In the end, it doesn’t matter if we understand what Joanna sees in Mark or he in her or why they forgive each other or why they still fight. What matters is that we recognize in their ebb and flow the same ebb and flow we all feel, and we see the way our histories become all-defining for us. One of the reasons marriage, and indeed any human relationship, becomes more difficult over time is because the longer you are around someone, the more human they become. The ability to see someone completely, to see all those contradictory things that make us who we are, and to still see the good first is what allows us to build something that lasts, something that is real. Marriage is a full-contact sport that no one wins, and as Two For The Road makes achingly clear, the only reward comes from playing with your full heart.