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09 February 2016

Two For The Road (1967)

Directed by: Stanley Donen
Music: Henry Mancini
Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Albert Finney, 
Claude Dauphin, Eleanor Bron, 
Gabrielle Middleton, William Daniels, 
Jacqueline Bisset, Nadia Gray,  
Georges Descrières
Most movies give you a very unrealistic view of love. It's supposed to conquer all. And presented with two good-looking leads, silhouetted against the sunset, hand in hand, it allows us to dream of an idyll (and ideal) that we must aspire to. Frankly, I think that trope is the reason for many a relationship failing. We seem to think that this is how it must be - love. So beautiful, so perfect, so...

But it isn't really, is it? Relationships are messy, complicated things. What happens after you fall in love? After you've lived together, and perhaps married each other, had a kid or two? What happens when those little things you once loved about each other are precisely those that set your teeth on edge? When the initial passion abates and a certain taken-for-grantedness, even tedium, sets in? Well, who would want to see a mirror image of ourselves on screen? What is the fun in seeing our own imperfections magnified tenfold? But that is exactly the trip that Stanley Donen takes us on, in this tale of marriage and morals. 
Mark Wallace (Albert Finney) and his wife, Joanna (Audrey Hepburn) are on their way to France. On the way to the airport, they stop for a wedding outside a church. 'They don't look very happy, do they?' queries Joanna. 'Why should they? responds Mark. 'They just got married.' The couple are bound for St. Tropez, where Mark has been working for a very demanding client.

A few quick scenes are enough to establish that a) the Wallaces are wealthy (they fly their Mercedes 230SL roadster out to St Tropez with them; b) Mark is extremely forgetful (he manages to forget both his daughter and his passport within a couple of scenes; c) Joanna is neglected, irritable and terribly bored. 
The tension between the two is so thick, and Joanna lapses into the past, while Mark immerses himself in his files. 

Joanna had first seen Mark while on a ferry crossing - she is part of a girls' choir, and he is travelling alone. (It establishes one other thing - forgetting his passport is not a new thing for Mark.) 'You were once very happy to be married to me,' remarks Joanna, as they get their passports stamped; 'Do you remember the first trip we took when we had our own wheels? That MG? Which birthday of mine was it that you gave yourself that?' They had been so young then...
Perhaps that is when things started to go wrong, reminisces Joanna. And while the younger Joanna jokes about having married the wrong man, the Joanna-of-the-present is being asked whether she wants a divorce. Pretty much like their relationship-of-the-present, the MG breaks down

And the scene shifts to a flashback-within-the-flashback - a trip that predates the trip in the MG; Mark was hitching a ride behind a tractor, and Joanna was with her girl comrades in a bus travelling in the opposite direction. She'd never even spoken to him, she says, but she thought him insufferable. Her friends, however, thought him extremely attractive; so attractive, in fact, that the girl driving the bus turns around to look at him, and manages to drive the bus off the road! 

Mark stops to help them, and ends up by hitching a ride with them. His interest is in one of the other girls - Jackie (Jacqueline Bisset). He is thrilled when one of the girls falls ill, ends up infecting the whole lot of them with chicken pox, and it appears that Jackie is the only one who's free of the illness. 
Or is she?  

Very unexpectedly indeed, Mark finds himself hitchhiking with quite the wrong girl. He makes it quite clear that he is not on holiday, and he hasn't a minute to waste. Joanna is under no delusions either. She knows that Mark would have preferred she had the chicken pox instead. But of course, Mark's forgotten his passport again, and Joanna has it. 'If there's one thing I despise,' an irritated Mark tells her, 'it's an indispensable woman!'  
Despite her joking around, it is clear that Joanna is very  attracted to Mark. Hitchhiking across France with him gives Joanna a very clear idea of who Mark really is, and what he wants. (No commitment.) 'Who was she?' enquires an interested Joanna, dispassionately. 'She' was Cathy Seligman, now Mrs Howard Maxwell-Manchester (Eleanor Bron). 

That flashback segues into another - much later, of course, when Mark and Joanna are already married. They are holidaying with Cathy, her husband (William Daniels) and their daughter, Ruth (Gabrielle Middleton). 
Ruth is an impossible brat, and both Mark and Joanna have a tough time saying nothing.  But eventually, between Ruth and her parents, Joanna and Mark have enough, and they part ways, preferring to hitchhike than spend another moment with the Maxwell-Manchesters. In the present, Mark is driving rather recklessly through the narrow country roads, leading Joanna to quip that the car has only two speeds - 110, and stop. When Mark offers to let her drive, Joanna gets out of the car - she would prefer to walk.   

Back in that past (the one before they marry), Mark and Joanna are still waiting for a lift. Mark decides that it isn't working because they are together and that they should go their separate ways. He is quite put out when, almost immediately, Joanna gets a lift and leaves him standing there. But when he gets to a crossing, Joanna's there waiting for him. 
 That journey ends in unexpected ways. 

[We are back to journey number 2 - it appears we haven't seen the last of the Maxwell-Manchesters yet. And this, of course, is before the Wallaces have parted ways with them.] Ruth is as impossible as ever, and after one annoying episode after another, Mark wants to know if Joanna still wants to have children. Yes, of course, she insists, just not that one.  

The MG, meanwhile (remember that trip?) has just caught fire - immediately after Joanna has informed Mark that she's pregnant. Escaping with just their belongings, Mark and Joanna check into a hotel - at those prices, Mark tells her, they cannot afford to eat! But he does sneak in some food into the room. They are deliriously happy.
[In the present, however, they have nothing to say to each other. 'What sort of people sit in a restaurant and don't even try to talk to each other?' queries Joanna. 'Married people,' quips Mark.]

The next morning brings them some unwelcome bills, a visit with the local police, and a meeting with Maurice (Claude Dauphin), who rescues them from an irate French peasant. Maurice is on the lookout for an architect, and since Mark is one, he has a job before he can say 'Merci'.

The trips continue, back and forth, through their courtship,  the early years of their marriage, their time with the daughter, and the present road trip to St. Tropez. The cars change, fashions and hair styles change, Mark and Joanna change as well. We follow them through their ebb and flow of their love for each other, the rise and fall of their passions, their joys and their sorrows, their time together and apart, even their separate infidelities... 
In Mark and Jo, Stanley Donen gives us two people who are completely recognisable - they are, after all, us - in our many discrete manifestations. They are us, warts and all, and Donen just puts them under a microscope as he (with the help of Frederic Raphael's fine screenplay) examines the nature of a relationship that has lost its initial shine, and boredom has set in, underlined by a certain sense of resignation. Of course, in vintage Donen style, he frames it all beautifully.  

Two For The Road is a road trip that not only traverses geographies, but goes back and forth in time, as Mark and Jo ruminate over their pasts, shared or otherwise.  Joanna Wallace is so miffed with her husband, and so unsettled by the tensions that wrack their marriage that her memories of what they once had are a tangled mess. Mark, her husband, is a brilliant architect who has clawed his way out of poverty, and once madly in love with his beautiful, charming wife, is - now that he's married to her - quite a dolt. Their repartee, as they travel through France, is at once bitter and sarcastic, even as it underscores their familiarity with, and understanding of, each other.  In fact, as they both quote the other's remarks back, and the manner of their exchange traverses the range from snideness to bitterness to anger and sadness.
This was the role that presented Hepburn in a completely different way; the slightly aloof, self-possessed image she always portrayed in her earlier films gave way to a looser, more relaxed style as she and Finney, her co-star, portrayed the conflict and turmoil of a much-married couple. Hepburn was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress for this film. She is, by turns, diffident, coquettish, snappish, loving and contrite. Of course, she's positively radiant as well. 
Albert Finney, then an up-and-coming young actor, holds his own against his seasoned co-star. (They were much closer in age than most of Hepburn's previous co-stars, but Hepburn was already an established actress by this time, having taken on her first major role in Roman Holiday in 1953.) He plays Mark with a mixture of bluster, churlishness, machismo, affection, jealousy, warmth, sullenness, and - humour. 

And that is what remains with you, long after the film is over - the humour, often sarcastic, sometimes bitter, sometimes weary, but always there, forming an unlikely bridge between the frequently-warring couple. 

Frederic Raphael was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Writing, Story and Screenplay. Based (or so it is said) on his own marriage, Raphael wrote stunningly witty dialogues for the bickering couple: 
Mark: Just wish that you'd stop sniping.
Jo: I haven't said a word!
Mark: Just because you use a silencer doesn't mean you're not a sniper. 

And this:
Mark: Darling, what's French for 'Inspector, I don't believe a word you're saying and you're not gonna get a damn penny?'
Jo: 'Oui, monsieur.'  

Two For The Road is a very dialogue-driven film rather than plot-driven, and it is that which gives the film its enduring zing. More to the point, it needs a discerning eye for the very expressive looks on the faces of the characters, that speak more than any spoken word could. 

A shout-out also to Henry Mancini's score for this film. It complements the film, ebbing and flowing through its montage of scenes. Indeed, he's often referenced the title track as his all-time favourite. Mancini was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Original Score. 
What Two For The Road is, is not so much a portrayal of marriage as it is/should be, but a series of snapshots of a husband and wife, and the state of their matrimonial relationship. Not every bit is explained, certainly not their present lives outside this road trip, but that is what makes the film even more enticing. Its non-linear structure, as Donen keeps cutting back and forth from past (between different 'pasts') to the present, also makes it difficult to keep up with, since he doesn't emphasise the cuts; it's like randomly flipping through a photo album to get an imperfect look into how this particular relationship is viewed by its participants, leaving us to extrapolate that which is not shown or mentioned. Don't our memories work pretty much the same way, referencing past episodes not necessarily in chronological order?  

Two For The Road is not about an ideal relationship. Rather, it's a realistic - and humorous - portrayal of a relationship that matures into something bittersweet but enduring. The 'happy' in the 'happily ever after' is subjective and not just the stuff of wine and roses. 

And that's fine by me.

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