The Movies Bride and Gloom

"A Woman Under The Influence has been mistaken for a major achievement."

Marriage has never been very attractive subject matter for the arts. To be sure, there are a few distinguished plays like A Doll’s House and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in which the horrors of misalliance are examined, and a few fine novels like To the Lighthouse and Howards End in which the difficult business of marital love is treated with sensitivity. But for the most part marriage is the terminus of fiction and drama, the reward for enduring the ritual tensions of courtship. And movies about marriage are usually either sappy or sensational.

If such recent films as Scenes from a Marriage and A Woman Under the Influence indicate a reversal of the trend, it may be because marriage is no longer an economic necessity for women, and not even a moral necessity for increasing numbers of the young. The promise of eternal wedded bliss now seems to a lot of people at best a shallow, ephemeral myth, at worst a lie shown up by the divorce rate. If most people now enter marriage with a clear-headed sense of its problems, that’s a healthy trend, but it overthrows an awful lot of fictional, dramatic, and cinematic conventions.

I’ll admit that I approached Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage with a good deal of scepticism. I’ve never been a Bergman fan; though I respect his genius as a film craftsman and a director of actors, his vision, particularly in his films in the Sixties, has often seemed to me a rather pretentious brand of warmed-over existentialism with lots of powerful but ultimately rather empty symbolism. But Scenes from a Marriage is one of the few films for grown-ups-the first I can recall since Sunday, Bloody Sunday . Edited down from a television series (and how marvelous Swedish TV must be, when the best American TV can give us on the subject of marriage is a tedious cinema verité peep in the lives of the Loud family), it is a straight and uncompromising look at the lives of two people. No ideology, no camera tricks (lots of close-ups, of course, as you might expect in a film made originally for the small screen), just Bergman’s searching, literate script, which has been-in the version shown in Dallas-brilliantly translated and magnificently dubbed.

Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Liv Ullmann) are every couple who ever tried walking the tightrope between privacy and communion, between passion and tranquility, that defines marriage. Their marriage fails, and it’s not easy to diagnose the causes of its failure. They are intelligent, articulate, sensitive, and exhaustively self-critical. That of course may be one of the reasons for their failure: they work too hard at marriage, they are too open, so that one of them is driven to concealment of an affair, the other to a passive nursing of a sense of guilt. Johan is a bit glib, and oriented toward a professional success ethos that never really satisfies him. Marianne is warm but too eager to be wounded. When the fabric of their marriage is ripped apart, their roles begin to reverse: Johan comes to accept his failure as a professional man; Marianne becomes harder and more brilliant. At the end of the film they are together on a weekend stolen from their new mates. Their communion is perfect, but perfect because it is temporary-because they are no longer striving for eternal wedded bliss.

The acting is flawless. I’ve known Liv Ullmann was a fine actress, but I’ve always thought of her as a type: the icy, agonized Bergman heroine. But in Scenes from a Marriage she is much more, running an astonishing gamut-not of emotions but of responses: awareness, alertness, aloofness, hardness, tenderness. Her skill is not so much in creating a character as in letting that character respond to others. Ullmann and Bergman clearly know what D. H. Lawrence tried to teach us: that character is a process of relationships and reactions, not something to be boxed by a definition.

Erland Josephson is equally fine. His must be in some ways the more difficult role. He must remain closed yet alert and apparently loving, opening himself only rarely to a rush of emotion. Beyond this, he must resist the temptation to compete with Ullmann for the viewer’s attention, to assert himself and steal scenes because heknows that hers is the more sympathetic and appealing role. Josephson’s is acting that conceals acting.



John Cassavetes’ screwy, arhythmic A Woman Under the Influence exhibits an entirely different style of acting from the restrained, carefully paced performances of Ullmann and Joseph-son. Cassavetes believes in setting a bunch of actors before a camera and letting them improvise, with the expectation that what they’ll produce will be more “lifelike” than formal, disciplined, scripted acting. The result, usually, is a collection of scenes with no pace or proportion, sometimes filled with a raw energy, but never coming into clear thematic or dramatic focus.

The premise of A Woman Under the Influence is workable, if hardly novel: a woman having a mental breakdown seems at times no crazier than her manic slob of a husband and his shrill harpy of a mother. She receives no support from her tense, distant parents or her oily, hypocritical doctor. It’s the stuff of which Olivia DeHaviland movies were made, but Cassavetes tries to give it new life with the improvisational style, and by setting it in a working-class milieu. Unfortunately, despite a dynamic performance by Gena Rowlands and a volatile one by Peter Falk, the film comes to no point, creates no tensions, and simply rambles on and on. Because it has its own style, distinct from the one we usually see in American movies, it has been mistaken for a major achievement.

As a film about marriage, it falls into the “mad housewife” genre, the point of which is that the tedium of housework and child-rearing is damaging to the soul. Sometimes true enough, perhaps, and Rowlands has some affecting moments when, trying to communicate with the band of fellow-workmen her husband brings home with him, she makes a pathetic attempt to share in a world outside the walls of the house which encases her. But where the film fails-and Scenes from a Marriage succeeds so magnificently- is in making the psychological drama take shape in our minds as a comment on human relationships. We can’t really see where Cassavetes’ characters have been, at the end we don’t know-and I’m not sure we care-where they’re going. The only real response the film produces is the sense of embarrassment one gets at being present at altercations between strangers.

Dallas waited a long time for both Scenes from a Marriage and A Woman Under the Influence, while a film about the enthusiastically unmarried, Shampoo, came to town almost immediately after its opening on both coasts. Shampoo was ballyhooed-and by critics I respect-as a significant fable for our times, in which sex is a metaphor for politics-or is it politics as a metaphor for sex? The film didn’t work for me in either case: I found myself neither amused nor moved nor stimulated by it. It’s one of those films that are more interesting to talk about than to watch, which means only that it provides some rather nice cocktail party chatter.

The sensibility that informs Shampoo is attuned to the pop, the trendy, the with-it. If the film surfaces on some higher artistic level, it’s probably because its ambiguities provoke reflection, and not necessarily because there’s an acute artistic intelligence working to make a profoundly ironic statement. Its political ironies are easy ones: Nixon and Agnew as targets are sitting ducks. Its moral ironies-the various reversals in which the victimizing stud (Warren Beatty) turns out to be the victim of his own sexual games – are straight out of Restoration comedy, with a twist provided by Women’s Liberation-era raised-consciousness. It is nice to see the cuckold (Jack Warden) emerge as more humane and sympathetic than the man who gives him his horns, pleasant to see the dumb broad (Goldie Hawn) demonstrate more strength and spirit and intelligence than the canny male she has been pursuing. Both reversals suggest a subtle ironic awareness on the part of producer Beatty, director Hal Ashby, or script writer Robert Towne. But they’re not enough to sustain the film as something more than a sex farce. The film is packing them in, though its appeal is largely because people think of it as a racy expose’ of the swinging single. Marriage is still the expected destination in the world of Shampoo, and when Beatty realizes that he hears time’s winged chariot at his back, he rushes to propose to Julie Christie. The few moments of suspense in the film are provided by the wait for her decision, and there are audible groans of disappointment in the theater when she refuses him. But what would be resolved by such a marriage? Why does marriage still hold such a glow of promise even in a film with a fairly tough-minded view of human beings like Shampoo.

In Shampoo we are still in the never-never world of the Beautiful People-the fact that the protagonist ofthe film is a hairdresser, a creator ofillusions, is meant to provide some kindof symbolic core for the film. Butthough the film tries to show us thattheir world is hollow, it still looks likefun. The truth, of course, is that Shampoo feeds our fantasies- including ourfantasy about marriage as a resolutionrather than a new set of responsibilities-more than it liberates us fromthem. Despite its tough-mindedness, Shampoo falls back on the old conventions after all.

D-Rated Movies

David Brudnoy

(All films listed are in current run; most are expected to be in Dallas, though some may not be distributed here immediately.)

Aloha Bobby ft Rose: Ho hum, another road picture, with the star-crossed lovers fleeing from The Law, meeting up with a blowhard and his blowzy “old lady,” their story resolving in tragedy. Bonnie and Clyde for the teeny-bopper set, pulling all the punches, but allowing Paul Le Mat a few moments to display his considerable talent as a James Dean impersonator.

And Now My Love: The past, truly, is prologue, in this hoked-up but winning love story of two young people whose coming together is occasioned, more or less, by the story of their ancestors. We race through time from turn-of-the-century coquettishness to contemporary jet-set romance. One drop more of kismet and the movie would be unbearably cloying; as it is, it envelopes the viewer in its web of circumstance. By Claude Lelouch, who brought us A Man and a Woman in 1966.

The Day of the Locust: Nathaniel West’s bitter classic about Hollywood’s has-beens and would-bes, lavishly filmed and lovingly acted by Karen Black, Donald Sutherland, Burgess Meredith, and young William Atherton of Sugarland Express. Each is splendid in his role, and the movie, if not wholly faithful to West’s book, is suitably apocalyptic. The conclusion, reflecting West’s morbid vision of fame’s fleeting power and the mob’s hysteria, is horrifying.

Donkey Skin: A fairy tale about incest-now there’s one for the books-that is so saccharine it might rot your teeth. Nevertheless, if the sort of singing dipsyness that infested The Umbrellas of Cherbourg some years back is your cup of treacle, this is for you. The young lovers are adorable, the fairy godmother is a hoot, and the colors are enchanting. With luck it could become a cult classic for hippies who’ve gone that route with Disney’s Fantasia.

The French Connection, II: Gene Hackman is back as Popeye Doyle, the drug-chasing New York cop, here transplanted to France to tidy up the loose ends left from the first installment. Needless to say, it is very messy indeed, and there’s a neat chase, and the chief villain may have survived for a third installment. The added twist this time: Popeye turned into a junkie, undergoing one of the most gruesome cold turkey scenes on film. Not a sequel to treasure.

The Invitation: A Swiss comedy of enormous skill and seductive appeal. A lawn party for the office colleagues allows a suddenly affluent man to demonstrate his affection for his only friends. They in turn reveal all their silliness, pomposity, lechery, and meanness, and the benign gesture results in anarchy and bitterness. Scene after scene manifests a total control of the material, and a subtle French wit embodying both devilish satire and emotional sincerity.

Love At The Top: Jean-Louis Trintignant plays a man whose dream is “to have lots of money and sleep with many women.” He triumphs, as does this odd but compelling French comedy. The women he sleeps with are lovely, especially Flor-inda Bolkan (A Brief Vacation), and his crawl to the top is both funny and tragic. Paris never looked so chic, nor opportunism so natural.

Mandingo: Massa’s sho’ ’miff gwine be in de col’ col’ groun’ iffn he don’ watch out, what wif de new wife all hot fo’ de big black buck slave Mede, an’ young crippled Massa Hammond lustsn’ after de new wench Ellen, an’ de slaves gettin’ uppity, an’ de hot sun a-beatin’ down on de plantation, an de babies bein’ birthed, an de slave traders tradin’, an’ de new wife’s baby comin’ up de wrong color – black – an’ young Massa gettin’ mighty angry an’ givin poison to de new wife an’ a boilin’ cauldron to de big black buck, who am sho’ in trouble wif Massa. Good grief!

Monty Python and the Holy Grail: Gad-zooks! The British loonies currently syndicated on American public TV are at it in a feature-length, partly-animated 61m that starts hilariously and wears down to a precious few yucks. The knights of Arthur’s Camelot are a sorry lot, the blood and guts spill easily, but here and there a scene is uproarious, as when the bards accompanying Sir Robin sing first of his bravery and then just as blithely serenade the world with tales of his cowardice; and when, for want of horses, Arthur and Company gallop themselves to the accompaniment of servants clopping coconuts together in a horse hoof rhythm.

The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat: Fritz is back, the same unteachable feline bore, truckin’ with the same racial stereotypes, souped up with some political “relevance.” Would you believe Kissinger as a rodent President of the US of A at war with the crows, who have New Jersey (“New Africa”) and . . . Not a laugh, not a chuckle, not a giggle, not a smile. A cartoon film for those who despise everything, including themselves.

Rancho De Luxe: Well, podner, here’s your little old tale of the oooooold West – 1974 – with two greedy, eager, horny young studs (Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston) hot to make it big by cattle rustling. Almost, lads, almost. Along the way they romp and frolic with Elizabeth Ashley. Slim Pickens and a variety of other characters help the movie survive. No great shakes, but light-hearted fun.

Stardust: A remarkably moving film detailing a rock group’s rise, stardom and decline, with David Essex as the lead, and some of the best pop music of the ’60s and ’70s, plus an original score for the fictional “Stray Cats” group. Not overplayed or moralistic or antagonistic, just a splendid bloodletting-cum-social commentary.

Ten Little Indians: Oh, Agatha Christie, how they have pickled your juicy tale in formaldehyde! Everyone and his brother (and sister) contributes to the deadening of this wonderful story. After Murder on the Orient Express, filmgoers were expecting another beautiful film treatment of the Christie technique. Alas, it bombs. One wishes only that they had died sooner.

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