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!
Audrey Hepburn as Joanna Wallace
Albert Finney as Mark Wallace
Eleanor Bron as Cathy Manchester 
William Daniels as Howard Manchester
Jacqueline Bisset as Jackie
 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:
Joanna: "They don't look very happy."
Mark: "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'sface 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:
Mark: "I just wish you'd stop sniping."
Joanna: "I haven't said a word!"
Mark: "Just because you wear 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  like a movie star 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:
Mark: "What happened to your slick friend in the Alfa Romeo?"
Joanna: "I told him I was in love with you and 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:
Mark: "Bitch."
Joanna: "Bastard."


Copyright © Ken Anderson

10 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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    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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  6. I read awhile back that Audrey and Albert had an affair while making this film. If true, it could help explain their incredible chemistry. Also, the Mancini music is to die for.

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    1. I read the same thing in more than one biography. Her marriage was really in a shambles at the time, so I don't doubt it. And honestly, those two have an onscreen chemistry that seems to transcend acting skill.
      I'm glad the camera was magically able to pick that up!

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  7. Hey, Ken! It's been awhile since my last stop here on your blog! I've been so busy these last couple of months, I haven't had much time available to watch movies... But as Halloween is just around the corner and I'm preparing for my Horror Sessions, I reserved a special night just to watch this movie (It had been on my To-Watch-List for years)... I was blown away by aaaall of the feelings I felt at the same time, what a bittersweet journey!
    I really like the casting here, Albert Finney is a great actor, and he just has this "every ordinary baby boomer man" aura that is difficult for me to not see my father (or many other real men) in him. His self loathing, his aggressiveness and even his subtle shades of guilt are so believable! He is all the men I knew in a nutshell: so drowned in conventions and unrealistic macho behaviors that he can't even understand himself and his actions, left alone with the consequences of his obscure selfshiness, tormented by a world that wants him to be more human (in other words, weak). [Plus, he's kinda hot here]
    Audrey is fabulous. Sometimes I would easily get lost in the time changes if it wasn't for her (as you said). She took me by the hand through this whole journey from a romantic girl to a cinic woman who suffers not because she doesn't believe in love anymore, but because she wants to believe it but because she has so few reasons to do so. As a woman of a certain time, she was led to believe love would fulfill her days, but that didn't happen, and neither money or (apparently) motherhood worked as a fair compensation for that emptiness. She ends up being satisfied by provoking her husband and showing her constant unhapiness. The road to self degradation, through Audrey's performance, is a beauty to behold.
    That's why I think this movie works so well as it is. If done today, would be a smart movie, but being done in the 60s, when love, marriage, sex, the 50s lovely and perfect family and so many more social conceptions started to be questioned and exposed as mere illusions, this feels like a powerful statement of human condition, it's like a perfect portrait of the changes that led us to the world we have today. We discover, alongside Albert and Audrey, the reasons why that world no longer exists. On top of that, we have the top romantic lead of that period being dismantled on camera, deconstructed in such a way that few actresses today would allow themselves to be. Oh, Audrey. I just can't express how much I feel for that woman. To this day we haven't seem anybody quite like her.
    But, at the end, this movie is not only pessimism. Afterall, we see so many beautiful moments that it made me want to fall in love again (even though I label myself as a "never-againist" LoL), and even though they tend to press and humiliate each other in so many different ways, always at the brink of separation, we see the clear ties that hold them together, the strenght of something bigger than their hate and their momentarily anger, and even their love: we see how powerful it is (or was?)the comitment to be with someone for life, the life-long loialty of marriage. That "Bitch, Bastard" scene makes us treasure not the beautiful moments, but the imperfect aspects of human relations, the celebration of the love for one's qualities that couldn't exist without the love for one's flaws.
    Also, Henry Mancini score, honestly, is like love itself. That man gave me music for all my life!
    Have a nice weekend, Ken! :)

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    1. Hello, Joao Paulo
      Tonight is Halloween, so I’m going to assume you are deep into your Horror Sessions by now and having a great time. Hope you’ve enjoyed a very Happy Halloween. A nice surprise seeing this comment in such an old post!

      So impressed (and jealous) that you got to see this marvelous film for the first time in a pristine condition that is likely crisper and sharper in color than the film was even in original release.
      Better still, it seems as though the themes and emotional drama of this 50 year old film still holds up. All you say about Finney’s character is very illuminating, revealing the film to have a certain keenness about the human condition that resonates even now.
      So much of this film is connected to nostalgia with me that it’s something of a breath of fresh air to hear you reiterate much of what I feel, but have long since assumed was due solely to my relating the film to my youth.

      You make many good points and shed light on several well-noted details (like Hepburn’s character’s romantic expectations/illusions clashing with having fallen in love with a flawed man), but I think what you say about the film working because of the social mores of the time, is spot-on.

      TWO FOR THE ROAD has always struck me as a particularly modern/adult romance because it really does confront those 50s attitudes about marriage and family that were never rooted in how people really relate. Very sharp of you to note that without the relative social repressiveness of the 60s, there is little to the story that would generate conflict. Joanna and mark are both products of their time, but they’re growing up.

      And I don’t see the film as pessimistic, either. Not if one believes love can still survive what is simply human weakness (which I think it can). Think you got a lot out of the film and really allowed yourself to process it beyond mere standards of “like it” “don’t like it”…you seem to have let the film tell its story, and the honesty of the tale told appears to have reached you.
      Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to share this with us. It adds a lot to this blog to hear from someone seeing it for the first time. And responding to it so thoughtfully. Thanks! And I hope you have a marvelous week! Always a pleasure. Take care!

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