Last month David Fincher’s Gone Girl made a smash at the box office. As if plugged directly into the Zeitgeist, it seemed as if everyone had a take on the film’s views on gender, the media and marriage. Gone Girl was a sensation that turned the camera inward, revealing our discomfort with the institution of marriage. While the butt of many jokes, marriage is perceived as an important pillar in our understanding of families, social values and personal happiness. Yet, it remains behind closed doors. We understand marriage within the realms of our own experience, our parents, our friends and our own marriages. Yet, we are only ever truly familiar with our own intimate relationships and even that is under debate. If anything, Gone Girl shows that within marriage there are two sides to every story. Marriage is veiled with a certain air of mystery and the question of what makes a good marriage remains unanswered.
Art became the window into the intimacy of marriage and the screen in particular has offered both insight and guidance into how to conduct ourselves within relationships. Perhaps the first great filmmaker to tackle the topic was none other than Ernst Lubitsch who created the most sophisticated comedies Hollywood has ever seen. His first American film, The Marriage Circle, was a comedy errors about modern couples handling the temptations, struggles and misunderstandings of marriage. As light as the film seemed, it was pointedly about communication and lack-thereof within intimate relationships. Lubitsch would go on to make some of the very best films on marriage of the classic era, including To Be or Not to Be and Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife. Over 30 years later, Ingmar Bergman would adopt an almost identical structure as The Marriage Circle with his wholly underrated Smiles of a Summer Night. Both used comedy to explore weakness and ego, and how often they are held hand in hand when it comes to our intimate relationships and their downfalls.
Comedy and marriage seemed like a natural coupling, in particular during the Hollywood golden age. Most of the best films about marriage coming out of Hollywood were funny. In The Thin Man series, marriage is idealized. While both Nick and Nora are presented as flawed characters, both exhibiting periods of jealousy, self-centeredness and even vague resentment, the character’s chemistry and sense of cooperation showcased them as a couple that complimented each other’s strengths and weaknesses. This was not a marriage of discontent and comfort, but one of actively challenging the other to be a better person.
The limits of the production code presented a challenge to depiction of marriage on screen, as married couples could not even be seen sharing a bed on screen. Clever filmmakers found inventive ways to work around the code, and perhaps one of the best was Leo McCarey with The Awful Truth. One of the very best films about marriage, The Awful Truth is about a couple on the path to divorce because of dishonesty and lack of communication. The film gets away with hints at infidelity, sexual passion and some other nastiness through clever aesthetic choices. Pairing two of the best comedians of the day Cary Grant and Irene Dunne only upped the ante, we understood beautifully this was a couple obsessed with each other but because they were so proud they could not work it out. They pull others into their madness, avoiding at all costs spending time alone with each other. The film’s final sequence, in which the couple share an adjoining room with a door that won’t stay shut, we understand the sexual mechanics of their chemistry. The scene without breaking the code suggests the intimacy of their coupling and the importance of sex within it. Rarely has sex held such importance for a married couple onscreen.
Working through the remaining decades of the code, marriage often seemed like an afterthought in the bigger genres of the day. Film Noir was more interested in sex and loners, musicals about falling in love and westerns the lone male. Dramas occasionally explored the difficulties of marriage and films like The Best Years of Our Lives addressed issues couples were faced in a post-war world. Only decades later would the illusion of marriage, along with the Production Code, experience its final blows. In 1966 Mike Nichols directed ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’, a film thats caustic view of marriage reflected a shift in attitude and perception towards institutional power. Over the next decade, marriage existed more on the peripheries. In movies like The Godfather and The Deer Hunter, focus was put into presenting an idealization of marriage through a grand wedding party, only to slowly destroy those dreams as the film went on. Marriage became about broken dreams, about desolation and finally divorce.
This disillusionment with marriage seems par on course for films focused on the topic into the contemporary era, with Gone Girl being one of the most popular examples. While romantic comedies continued to find popularity, these were more often about falling in love rather than portraying what happens after the knot was tied. Television took over in many ways, and to this day there are few films that could be said to approach the idea of marriage with as much nuance as shows like Mad About You and The Sopranos. Television also had a certain amount of scope that film could rarely evoke, it spanned through time so that we were able to see the ups and downs of marriage. It was not about a slice of life but the variations and transformations of the people as a couple and as individuals.
While I’ve focused almost exclusively on marriage within American cinema, a lot can be understood about society about its ideas and rituals surrounding the idea. Marriage becomes a barometer for a culture or an era. Over the course of November, Sound on Sight writers will be focusing on different issues and ideas related to the representation of marriage on the screen. This will range from the hopeful, idealized love to the struggles and pitfalls of married life. The representations will feature filmmakers from around the world and from different eras. Questions of love, family, business and divorce will all feature prominently in the pieces. As the theme will be lovingly called ‘Hatchet for a Honeymoon’, there is the idea that we will side with the pessimistic perspective but under that surface of apprehension, hopefully a little love and a little hope can shine through too.