Tuesday, July 14, 2009

TWO FOR THE ROAD 1967


For me, the epitome of romantic films is Stanley Donen's bittersweet look at love & marriage, Two for the Road. Chronicling the rocky 12-year marriage of Mark & Joanna Wallace (Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn) by way of a series of interwoven south of France vacations, Two for the Road, no matter how many times I see it (and we're talking waaaay in the double digits here), never fails to give me waterworks.
When I was a kid and first saw this film on TV, I remember being struck by how hurtful this couple could be towards one another, yet, in the middle of an argument, if one of them said the words "I love you," everything ground to a halt and nothing else mattered. This certainly wasn't true of my parents, and I wondered then if this wasn't just shameful Hollywood romanticism or something I would discover as a grown-up.
Now that I'm older and very much in love in a 12-year relationship of my own, I understand now what I didn't then: those three little words do have the power to reduce everything else to insignificance. And against all reason and logic, amidst all the disappointments, tears and casual pain inflicted, unabashed Hollywood-style romance really does exist!
Therein lies the lasting appeal of Two for the Road. There is something touchingly authentic in this depiction of love as a journey. An imperfect journey that, while inescapably funny, sad, joyous and difficult, is ultimately, unapologetically, and unremittingly romantic!

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
It's the much-needed antithesis to those false Doris Day /Rock Hudson romantic comedies I grew up on. Finney & Hepburn are are introduced by this exchange on encountering a young bride and groom:
Hepburn- "They don't look very happy."
Finney- "Why should they? They just got married."

And the tone of the film is set: humor mixed with achingly observed truths. I love that our first glimpse of them is from behind their windshield, Hepburn's eyes obscured by mask-like dark glasses, Finney's face a bitter scowl of discontent. They are like exhibits in a sociology museum.
In this scene and the one following that takes place on a plane, director Stanley Donen conveys, cinematically and economically, a wealth of information about this couple without the need for lengthy exposition. Their car and wardrobe suggest their financial success while the empty space that is always between them illustrates their estrangement. Their body language is coolly stiff while simultaneously displaying the casual, take-each-other-for-granted familiarity of a couple that hasn't enjoyed being in each other's company for some time.
But the film's delights aren't all visual. The sharp dialog fairly crackles throughout:
Finney- "I just wish you'd stop sniping."
Hepburn- "I haven't said a word!"
Finney- "Just because you use a silencer doesn't mean you're not a sniper."

PERFORMANCES
This is my all-time favorite Audrey Hepburn movie. It's like Audrey Hepburn unplugged! Never has she appeared more relaxed, natural and...sexy! She swears, she's funny, she's deeply affecting and moving at one moment, cold and cut-off another...a real marvel of a performance. I've never seen her like it before or since.
Faced with the challenge of having to show the progression of a relationship in non-chronological order, Hepburn manages to capture subtle yet distinct elements to her character that never leave us in any doubt as to what point in time a sequence is occurring. Transforming herself from the inside out, she takes us from the softer-voiced, light-hearted young woman at the start of the relationship to the poised, somewhat hardened sophisticate of the latter.





One would be forgiven if it was assumed the above images were taken from different films at different times in the actress's career. Not to take anything from the costumers, make-up people or cinematographer, but Hepburn's internal transformation is what holds the film together and makes her Joanna Wallace one of her most fully realized film characterizations.
Finney suffers from a character arc that is not as effectively drawn and as such is easy to overlook, but he shines in making a man of questionable likability a believable and dimensional character.
Making up for that small lack is the electric chemistry between Finney & Hepburn.
They practically define the word. Their scenes together have so much heat and genuine affection that it's doubtful that the film would even have worked without it.


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Hepburn's beauty, of course. And her CLOTHES! Has there ever been a classier cinema clothes-horse?
Rugby dress with plastic visor
Suffering as only a movie star can: In a trippy black vinyl pantsuit.

My personal fave-rave and a real mind-blower: Hepburn in a Paco Rabanne cocktail dress of silver metallic plastic discs. WOW! Every time I see her in this scene I think, "What a knockout!"


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
The scene that never fails to get the ol' waterworks going occurs early in the film when Finney & Hepburn have just met and are reluctant road partners. Claiming he travels faster alone, Finney gives Hepburn her walking papers and she rides off with a gentleman in a snazzy car after only a brief, half-hearted attempt at hitchhiking. Not having the same luck, Finney is later seen ambling down the road towards a mechanized roadside warning. Of course, Hepburn materializes from behind the sign and I barely see the ensuing exchange through the tears welled up in my eyes:
Finney- "What happened to your slick friend in the Alfa Romeo?"
Hepburn- "I told him I was in love with you, so he put me down."
The look in Hepburn's eyes rips a hole in my heart each and every time.
In a film where everything is mirrored, doubled, and circles around on itself, it's only fitting that the movie should end as it started: Finney & Hepburn in a car, her eyes shielded by glasses.
They are as we found them, but we the viewers are different. We now know what we couldn't have known at the film's start; their marriage isn't perfect, but there is something about their love for one another that is. And within that fact lies the glimmer of hope that the bittersweet ending we're watching is a real Hollywood happy ending after all.
I also love that these are the last words spoken in the most romantic film of all time:
Finney- "Bitch."
Hepburn- "Bastard."

Copyright © Ken Anderson

6 comments:

  1. what a wonderful movie blog! Loaded with personal observations and heart and also with educated criticism. thanks for your engaging blog.

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  2. I'll agree with that guy-^
    I read about this movie when I was doing a paper on Hepburn once, but forgot about it for some time as I was not able to find a copy at that time. Thank you so much for reminding me of it (I found it yesterday and just watched it today!) and for your wonderful comments.

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  3. In addition, I would like to say that I enjoy Mancini's music. There are some tracks on the Breakfast at Tiffany's score that I can listen to many times and know that I will still enjoy them in the future.

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  4. @ Anonymous
    Hi Anonymous. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this film and your kind comments. I'm glad you got around to watching the film. It's so cleverly constructed that I think it still holds up after all these years. And I agree about Mancini. This is my top favorite, but he did great work on so many films (I'm fond of "The Party".

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  5. I watched this picture and thought that you must have already seen it by now, as it's right up your alley. I couldn't recall if you had reviewed the film, but I now remember having seen this entry some time ago.

    The bit where Audrey impersonates the road warning sign cracks me up (laughing, not crying). I also found myself constantly astonished and amused by Audrey's collection of outfits. In addition to what's pictured above, she also had that dress with the swirly psychedelic colours all over it. You'll also notice quite often that whatever Audrey is wearing matches perfectly with other things around her, such as the car, a tablecloth, a candlestick, the road warning sign, the lights, etc. A great deal of thought was put into the visuals in this film. It is a film with substance, but it also just LOOKS brilliant.

    It's easy to forget that Miss Hepburn was Belgian--she comes across as more like a "citizen of the world" than anything else, or at least a "citizen of Europe", so the scene where she starts speaking French reminded me of her roots.

    I'm certain you'd have something to say about the family that Albert Finney and Miss Hepburn endure throughout one of their road trips, Howard and Cathy Maxwell-Manchester and their spoilt brat daughter, Ruthie. I can't help but think that an entire generation of '60s parents used "Howie" as their role model for raising a child, and now of course the children of the sixties who are the parents of today are passing on THOSE bad habits to their children.


    How about those opening titles? I really love the opening titles for Stanley Donen's "Charade" and the titles for "Two for the Road" had a similar feel. As it turns out they were created by Maurice Binder, who was behind the opening titles for "Barbarella" (exquisite!) and was also the magic man who conjured those iconic title sequences for the early James Bond films.


    Finally, I must say that I really enjoyed the fact that Albert Finney's character shared my first name. Great fun hearing Audrey say my name for nearly two hours.

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    Replies
    1. I've never had the pleasure of seeing this film on the big screen, so I'm glad you finally got to see it under those circumstances. Indeed it is a very visually stylish film with Hepburn's wardrobe almost a character in and of itself(at the time, much was made of the fact that this was to be Hepburn's introduction into the world of mod).
      The title sequence is really fabulous, one of my favorites of Binder's, whose work I was so thoroughly enamored of in college.
      Glad you mentioned how wonderful Eleanor Bron and William Daniels are as the prototypical Ugly Americans abroad with their monster of a child.
      And yes, hearing one's name said for 90 minutes by Audrey Hepburn must be some kind of heaven. Thanks for sharing your experience of this film, Mark!

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