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Sunday, March 16, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Two For The Road (1967)

Director: Stanley Donen
Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Albert Finney

“What kind of people just sit in a restaurant and don’t say one word to each other?” Joanna (Audrey Hepburn) asks. “Married people,” Mark (Albert Finney) replies. Two For The Road is a romantic comedy/drama about how two people can at once want the same and different things. It centers on Mark and Joanna and shows us their relationship in a kaleidoscopic way, jumping back and forth through time so that we meet them at various stages of their relationship, always while they’re on vacation in the same parts of Europe. It’s a narratively innovative and clever story against which Hepburn and Finney deliver charmingly complex performances.

Mark and Joanna meet as college students. She's travelling with friends, he's backpacking through Europe, planning to sleep outdoors and spend as little money as possible. She's smitten, he's not... quite. They end up travelling the rest of the way together and, in the process, she wins him over. Later, they're married and travelling with friends - his ex-girlfriend, her husband, and their precociously annoying daughter. Later still, they have a child of their own and he's working for a French businessman. And finally, their last trip together on their way to get divorced. These various timelines are woven together so snugly that occasionally we enter a location with the Mark and Joanna of a later timeline, and exit with the Mark and Joanna of an earlier timeline, or vice versa.

We follow them through the ups and downs of their relationship, as they fall in love, and out of love, and back in love, as they both have affairs, and as they have the same arguments over and over again. We can see from the beginning that they'll have problems. For example, she wants to get married, he doesn't. Later, when they are married, she wants to have children, but he doesn't. “We agreed before we were married that we weren’t going to have children,” he reminds her. “And before we were married we didn’t.” The chemistry between Hepburn and Finney is easy, not forced. When they flirt, we believe that they want each other, and when they fight we believe that they're angry... but at the same time would like nothing better than to forgive each other and forget. For a brief time she leaves him for another man and when she returns they have a conversation that is short and simple, but manages to convey the various emotions at play for both of them. “You humiliated me. You humiliate me… and then you come back,” he says. She nods, saying, “That’s right.” “Thank God!” In this one scene we get a picture of their relationship in miniature, of the ways they play off and against each other, the ways they’ve hurt each other, and the ways that they still need each other.

The direction by Stanley Donen, who is more widely regarded for his work in musicals (Singin’ In The Rain, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers and Damn Yankees among them), is superb. There is drama and comedy, neither of which seems out-of-place, so perfectly mixed are they. The third and forth timelines, during which the marriage is falling apart and ending, is heavy with drama for obvious reasons. The first and second are charming and funny, the trip with the other couple, especially. At one point the couple's daughter throws a tantrum which leaves them stranded by the side of the road. "Do you still want to have children?" Mark asks. "Not that one," Joanna replies.

Donen has said that at the time of its release a lot of people didn’t “get” Two For The Road due to its non-linear, back-and-forth timeline. Today the tricks he used have been employed in so many other films that we're familiar with them and this type of narrative is as much a part of film language as any other. The style of the film doesn’t detract in any way from the story, it only enhances it and contributes to the way that the film still seems fresh and charming, rather than dated. Each timeline is used to mirror the others in some way, so that we anticipate in the early timelines the issues that will have emerged later, and see in the later timelines the things that are still keeping the relationship together, and those things causing cracks to emerge in the foundation. What we end up with is a three-dimensional picture of this relationship and the people in it. Neither one is perfect, but that's what makes them so compelling and what makes their story so emotionally engaging.

There's a running joke throughout the film: he can never find his passport, and she always knows exactly where it is. The film ends with them stopped at the border – a significant fact given that they're on their way to getting divorced and neither one seems totally resigned to going through with it. He's looking frantically for his passport. She holds it up for him and waits for him to notice. When he finally does he takes it from her and says, "Bitch." "Bastard," she replies, both uttering their epithets with affection rather than malice. These final moments more or less sum up their relationship: they’re pulled together and pushed apart in equal turns but, ultimately, they’d be lost without each other.

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