Two for the Road (1967)

18 04 2019

It has been quite some time since I’ve written much of substance on film, be it here on elsewhere. For better or worse, life has gotten in the way in the past two years, and while I’ve still maintained a diet of cinema, I’ve basically taken a break from thinking about it critically. The only film during this period that legitimately inspired me to almost come back to this was First Reformed, a film which effortlessly balances the pragmatic cynicism that is the destruction of our planet with the hope for some sort of revolutionary change. The dire rubs up against the triumphant, but the final note is a sour one. Two for the Road, which could be described as Stanley Donen’s most experimental film but shouldn’t be declared as it, strikes a similar chord. It is both misanthropic and playful, accurately portraying the oscillation between sweetness and bitterness that happens in a relationship.

Henry Mancini’s swooning romantic score opens up an artful title card sequence, which eventually gives way to an equally romantic image: a wedding. The newlyweds in questions don’t look particularly happy, though. This exact observation is made by a woman passing by in a car. She is Joanna Wallace (Audrey Hepburn) and she directs the remark to a man, Mark Wallace (Albert Finney) who we can quickly identify as her husband. He somberly adds, “why should they be happy? They’re married.” Mark and Joanna are about to begin a vacation, but there’s very little excitement between the two of them. The pre-flight drink they share is met with an astonishing amount of indifference. They don’t hate each other, although they will both say so later on, and they don’t love each other either, though they will also say that later on. Instead, they treat their traveling as another chore. Their present-day flight passes over the past, where the two first met. Back then, Mark was also losing his passport and Joanna was also still finding it for him. The film immediately announces a playful interpretation of time.

All of Two for the Road operates with the temporal understanding as the sequence described above. By situating most of the actions on a literal road, Donen and screenwriter Frederic Raphael, brilliantly set themselves up to bend with time. Sequences aren’t arranged or driven by the limitations of time, but instead are connected through space. At one point, Mark remarks “If I ever have a car, I’ll never pass a hitchhiker” while a car passes by him. The driver of that car is him in the future blissfully ignoring some hitchhikers in the same location. The collections of moments that make up the film, then, are not even related by the emotions shared between the two lovers.

In fact, the most brilliant moments of Two for the Road come when a moment of intense romantic happiness is punctuated by one of two things: the couple’s aforementioned indifference towards each other or an outright disdain for each other. The characters themselves position the timeline of the relationship at twelve years, which provides ample time to show the highs and the lows that occur in a relationship. Saying a relationship has “ups and downs” sounds like a cliché recited by an armchair therapist, but there’s a truth to it, albeit a shallow one. What Donen challenges here, then, is the very nature of what romantic love looks like in cinema. Although Two for the Road is not as outright self-reflexive as Godard’s similarly bitter romantic road movie Pierrot le fou, it does meditate on the understanding of love we have in cinema. Since most of our first examples of romance are ones on screen, the ones we eventually dream for ourselves are shaped by these depictions.

Cinema shaping our understanding of love is likely not a healthy thing, since most popular depictions of love fit within a three-act structure. There is the meeting, the turmoil, and the eventual overcoming of it. The temporally loose nature of Two for the Road’s structure bears a closer resemblance to the reality, since we’re never quite sure what “stage” of the relationship we are witnessing. We get the impression that the most bitter moments are towards the end but there is hostility shared in the beginning as well. Henry Mancini’s score often plays under the bickering, reminding us of what once there. Two for the Road eventually ends on a hopeful note, perhaps too hopeful for my liking, but it doesn’t underdo the rest of the film, which exposes the nature of relationships. They are hard work, and sometimes hopelessly so. But sometimes they are worth it.

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