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above:  Kerry Bishé and Joel McHale in Happily (2021)

In the Dark

Till Death Do Us Part

Happily

Directed and written by BenDavid Grabinski ◆ Produced by Common Wall Media ◆ Distributed by Saban Films


The Father

Directed and written by Florian Zeller ◆ Produced by Film4 ◆ Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics


Goodbye Again (1961)

Directed and produced by Anatole Litvak ◆ Written by Samuel A. Taylor ◆ Distributed by United Artists

 


Two of the three films I’m covering this monthHappily and The Father—could be considered companion pieces designed to illustrate life’s extremes. On the one hand, the bliss of a youthful married couple, on the other, the descent into madness of an elderly widower.

In Happily, Tom (Joel McHale) and Janet (Kerry Bishé) are a young husband and wife who have earned the displeasure of their friends by being wondrously happy together. At a time when extramarital dalliances seem the rule rather than the exception, these two are an affront to the established norm of advanced coupledom. They’re utterly faithful to one another and enjoy sex with each other frequently. They even go so far as to display their affection at dinner parties and other gatherings.

Eventually, enough is enough. The state sends an official snoop tasked with correcting defects among the citizenry. This solemn fellow coldly explains to Janet and Tom that their behavior is an intolerable embarrassment and must be altered. To aid the mischievous couple he opens his official attaché case to reveal two syringes each filled with a chemical that, once injected, will set them on a more conventional path, one including officially sanctioned byways to infidelity. Janet is so incensed by this fellow’s smug assumption that he can facilitate their falling in with the libidinous practices of average citizens, she knocks him out, and thus begins an adventure spiked by fear and guilt.

At the next party they attend, their wedded bliss comes under vigorous assault. One of their well-meaning friends takes it upon herself to compromise Tom by seducing him into hedonistic conformity. While he remains passively unresponsive to her laborious efforts, he’s human and in the end she accomplishes her goal. The film then turns its attentions to two questions: What will happen to Janet and Tom’s marriage? And, will Janet and Tom overcome their friends’ displeasure?

The film’s unusual premise provides both its tension and amusement, propelling a comedy of surprising turnabouts which the characters negotiate at first with remarkable aplomb and then with deepening uncertainty. Although the narrative falters in its third act, it’s nevertheless worth spending 88 minutes to witness where this provocative premise finally leads. As the faithful couple, Bishé and McHale are both charming and sympathetic. As the bureaucrat, Stephen Root is as phlegmatically assured of his authority as are most other government-appointed functionaries.

I enjoyed the film largely because it portrays a marriage in which the partners are fully engaged both romantically and sexually. The flip side of this premise is that it is unusual. You can consult many tabulations of sexual performance should you care. Of course, the most famous were calculated by sexologist Alfred Kinsey, that is, when he wasn’t researching the gall wasp.

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above: Anthony Hopkins in The Father (2020)

The Father is a much more demanding film, one providing few pleasures other than Anthony Hopkins’ performance as an 80-year-old named Anthony, who is descending irretrievably into dementia. As such, watching it is a formidable ordeal for anyone on the wrong side of 60.

The film is French playwright Florian Zeller’s adaptation of his drama of the same title. While I didn’t see its stage production, it’s my guess that its translation to film improved its dramaturgy. Zeller uses space to dramatic and thematic effect as the camera pursues Hopkins wandering aimlessly through the long halls of his large flat. He’s sometimes confused about his surroundings and at other times declares them to be his long-standing dwelling place from which he’s determined never to leave.

He shares these quarters with his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) and her husband, Paul, played by Mark Gatiss at times and by Rufus Sewell at others. The film deliberately confuses time and characters, making it almost impossible to know what is happening and who is who. This is frustrating for the audience at first but it’s a key part of Zeller’s strategy. He wants viewers to feel firsthand the increasingly ominous confusion closing in on Anthony. 

To do this, he deliberately leaves out information that would help orient us. The same door, when Anthony opens it, sometimes leads to a kitchen and at other times to a bedroom. When Anne tells him she is moving to Paris to be with the man she loves, it’s left undetermined whether she’s talking about her husband or someone else. “What will become of me,” Anthony plaintively asks. He suspects Anne plans to put him in a nursing home, a prospect he abhors.

His dementia is exacerbated by growing paranoia as his world contracts with little he can do about it. Not only this, but apparent strangers are moving in with him. People he doesn’t seem to know are living in his flat. When he asks them, they explain that it isn’t his flat and they are his relatives. Meanwhile, we in the audience share Anthony’s confusion. We have little or nothing by which to orient ourselves.

Anthony’s mind is unraveling, and it’s horrendous to behold. Anthony says of himself that he’s “losing his marbles.” He walks about with mincing steps, swerving from one direction to another without apparent purpose. Only a fine actor can pull this off convincingly.  It’s a flawless performance by a master actor. You feel as if you, too, are descending into the darkening chaos of Anthony’s disintegrating mind.

You can foresee where the story is going but that’s primarily because it’s the way most of us will be going should we live long enough. The statistics on aging and dementia for people in their 80s and 90s are not heartening.

Be warned. This film is not entertaining. It’s rather like taking medicine with no assurance it will do you any good.

For something from the past, I rewatched Goodbye Again, a suave romantic sudser from 1961. I first saw it in a theater back then, knowing nothing more about it than that a 55-year-old Ingrid Bergman played the lead with 20-year-old Anthony Perkins as her improbable love interest—who is not just improbable but also importunate to a fault. The young lady I was dating at the time wanted to see it, and being my ever obliging self, I took her to see it.

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above: Anthony Perkins and Ingrid Bergman in Goodbye Again (1961)

The film held my interest by virtue of some fine acting and elegant Parisian settings. The story derives from Françoise Sagan’s novel Aimez-vous Brahms? and uses  the third movement of Brahms’ “Symphony No. 3” as its score. With its sobbing refrain, the soundtrack reinforces the film’s account of a love affair inexorably leading to heartbreak, largely because it involves people trapped in repetitive relationships that are unlikely to achieve anything permanent or purposeful. Certainly not marriage.

Bergman plays Paula Tessier, a 45-year-old American interior designer working for wealthy clientele in Paris when she meets the son of one of her clients, the feckless 25-year-old Philip Van der Besh (Perkins). Philip, something of a mamma’s boy, is taken with Paula from their first meeting and pursues her despite her pointed discouragement.

She’s not interested, both because of their age difference and because she’s in a long-standing relationship with Roger Demarest (Yves Montand). As middle-aged people, Paula and Roger decided not to marry and there are no children to encumber them. Being sophisticated, they agree each is free to take other lovers. This is an arrangement which Roger takes full advantage of while Paula does not, and she’s grown weary of Roger’s amours. This soon puts Philip in a different light and they become lovers. Despite his sophistication, Roger resents this May-December development and withdraws from the picture. And so the plot tightens until its resolution becomes quite predictable.

What makes the film interesting is its jaded appreciation of the heartless games people play in the name of romance. It shows how excluding marriage and children from relationships opens the door to manipulative cruelty.

I think this plot confirmed my suspicion that romance isn’t what popular culture claims it is, and that it is best to consider it a charming prelude to the business of begetting and raising children. Romance is romantic, but I’ve often thought people would do better in arranged marriages. Doing so enables them to have a more realistic sense of what the institution is really about. They’ll avoid the delusions romance so often fosters and nurture realistic expectations instead. Shakespeare knew the score in his Sonnet 130, which concludes with these four lines:

I grant I never saw a goddess go;

My mistress, when she walks,
treads on the ground.

And yet, by heaven, I think my
love as rare

As any she belied with false
compare.

This is a fine appreciation of romance’s charms balanced by a clear-eyed appraisal of a partner’s merits. Which reminds us of the ancient adage: Love is blind.          

George McCartney

George McCartney

George McCartney, a professor of English at St. John's College, is film editor for Chronicles.  He is the author of Evelyn Waugh and the Modernist Tradition (Transaction).

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cklampe
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Ingrid Bergman was born in 1915, which would make her closer to 45 than 55 in 1960. Not that your point isn't well taken.
 
 

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