Tragedies of Remarriage
In Pursuits of Happiness, the philosopher Stanley Cavell explores very subtly and with great insight what he calls the comedy of remarriage in thirties and forties movies including It Happened One Night, His Girl Friday and The Philadelphia Story. Here he sees films that in various manifestations suggest the way that love is a mature experience, often requiring the realisation of mistakes made and of new perspectives offering possibilities afresh. As he says: "put a bit more metaphysically: only those can genuinely marry who are already married. It is as though you know you are married when you come to see that you cannot divorce, that is, when you find that your lives simply will not disentangle. If your love is lucky, this knowledge will be greeted with laughter."
But if you are not lucky, you aren't in a comedy of remarriage, but in a tragedy instead. Can we describe Voyage to Italy, The Red Desert, Scenes from a Marriage, La Notte, The Soft Skin, The Woman Next Door and Le Bonheur as remarriage tragedies? One of the great things about Cavell's book is that his thesis is hopelessly incapable of justifying itself on the most superficial of levels, but instead argues its case on surprisingly profound ones, evident in the above Cavell remark. Some of the films focus on characters who aren't even married to start with (Lady Eve), or are married to someone else (It Happened One Night), yet nevertheless Cavell makes a convincing case for the importance of these films on the basis of comedic convention meeting social circumstances. "What suits the women in them - Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne, Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Barbara Stanwyck - for their leading roles? All were born between 1904 and 1911, about the years you would expect given two assumptions: that the leading women must be around thirty years old as the genre is forming itself, neither young nor old, experienced yet still hopeful." He adds that "within four or five years of the establishment of the talkie's material basis, it found in the genre of remarriage one of its definitive forms, as though cinema could barely wait to enter into the kind of conversation required of the genre and made possible by sound." Another point is that their mothers "would have been of the generation of 1880, the generation of, for example, Eleanor Roosevelt, Frances Perkins, Margaret Sanger. A distinguished generation one would think, and one is asked to think about it because in the fiction of our films the women's mother is conspicuously and problematically absent."
But what if we explore the notion of an absence of convention meeting a new set of social circumstances? In the seven works we invoke, the films are far away from the mood of comedy, and seem to demand a variation of the tragic form to explore the pessimism of trying to stay together. Some of the films are openly tragic in the sense that they incorporate a terrible event (the suicide in Le bonheur, the murder in The Soft Skin, the murder/suicide in The Woman Next Door), but it is as if the tragedy resides in social circumstances that cannot quite wrestle optimism from the times except in the most problematic way. Le bonheur, with its summery, impressionist palate, ends with the wife appearing to take her own life the day after her husband tells her he has been having an affair with another woman, and the new woman becomes the surrogate mother to the kids as a new family situation is generated out of the old, with the new woman becoming as part of the family as the dead wife happened to be. Varda's film is of course provocational; the proper opposite of conventional. She wants to suggest, like the films Cavell focuses upon, the idea that troublesome situations can nevertheless lead to happy conclusions. But this is all very well if, as in It Happened One Night, the central female character decides to marry a man on the make chiefly because her father doesn't much care for him, before meeting a man she can really love, but in Le bonheur Varda shows a happily married couple with kids when the man embarks on the affair. It isn't even as if there are problems with the marriage: the wife asks him how come he is so happy and he explains that he has a lover too. He wants the best of both worlds and is capable it seems of sustaining these two lives without letting one or the other woman down. If Varda had ended the film on the wife's acceptance of the lover, it would have concluded on a comedic note, however utopian. But the wife's death means that it provocatively wants to conclude on the 'comedic' out of the tragic. The film's deep sense of provocation rests on this attempt. Le bonheur's conclusion understandably plays havoc with our ethical expectations, our psychological understanding.
This of course doesn't make Le bonheur a failure; it makes it a very modern kind of success - in some ways much more modern than if it had ended on a contented menage a trois. Why? Partly because Varda wants to arrive less at a utopian conclusion than a knotted feeling. If the film had ended with the three characters living happily with the kids, the viewer might have balked at the ending, but they wouldn't have been conflicted by it. From a certain point of view, Varda's conclusion is optimistic. The children no longer have a mother; the father is in love with his lover; the lover can become the mother to the kids. It has a certain logic that makes sense; but our senses won't quite accept the logic. This is where the conflicted comes in: the feeling that can't quite be absorbed by our mental and emotional faculties. The very point of comedies of remarriage is that the feelings extracted are those of uncommonly good sense. Of course, we think, that Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable should be together by the end of It Happened One Night, and of course those newspaper hounds Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell need to give it another go in His Girl Friday. Half the point of the comedies of remarriage is that we can see in front of our eyes what one or both of the characters are too stubborn or proud to witness: the sort of love that Cavell invokes in his comment about lives that will not disentangle. Varda suggests the opposite and hence the troublesomeness. Can the husband really be so happy so soon after his wife's death; will the children really so readily accept this new woman as their mother?
Varda's film remains a challenging experience because of its disjunction; most of the other tragedies of remarriage more easily play into the question of the dramatic over the comedic: in many instances Cavell's comment about disentangling remains evident, but without the possibility of happy endings. In Scenes from a Marriage, the husband might leave his wife early in the film with the certitude of someone who knows what he wants, but later on we see a man who is saying very contrary things when his wife appears to have moved on and no longer wants very much to do with him. While early on it is Liv Ullmann who can't countenance Erland Josephson leaving, nearer the end it is the other way round. Yet director Ingmar Bergman doesn't play this for ironic effect, for the laugh that says what goes around comes around, but for a vortex of emotion that leaves neither character feeling very good about themselves. This isn't the witty spat; closer to spitting words. Ullmann and Josephson are as unable to disentangle as Grant and Russell, but this is both a dramatic problem and a modern condition. If Cavell explores the sociological situation of women in the inter-war years, illustrating freedoms earned by their mothers politically, Bergman explores the post-war period of great economic growth and emotional restlessness. If people can have it all economically, can they not also demand it all emotionally too? Marriage isn't for life; it is potentially a life sentence that needs to be reduced by bad behaviour. When Johan informs Marianne he is leaving, he can't help but tell her about opportunities elsewhere. He says that he will go to Paris for a while; he intended to meet people there anyway, and his new lover Paula has a stipend that she wants to use. This is the language of opportunity and escape, but Bergman films it in the sort of close-ups that suggest disentanglement will be very hard indeed - and not only for Marianne who is being left. As he talks about Paris we see Johan in profile and Marianne face on, but the camera is tight in on the pair of them with Bergman illustrating why he is the master of not so much, or only, the close-up, but of the emotional and psychological bonds that cannot easily be separated. If Varda asks us to believe that a new formation to the family is easily achieved even after an apparent suicide (and demands a very rare and specific form of suspension of disbelief), Bergman finds a filmic form to ask us whether we can really believe this couple can comfortably part. In both instances, the tragic is more present than the comedic.
In a scene late in Bergman's film, Marianne seems to have got on with her life and it is Johan who acts as desperately around her as Marianne acted when Johan was leaving her for Paula. Bergman's approach is generally more aloof than in the earlier one, with Johan admitting to Marianne, in her office, that the bond between them was much stronger than he realised. He aches for family and home; life with Paula is lonelier than if he were single. Of course much of the exchange is still in Bergmanesque close up as the director moves in on Johan and Marianne as Marianne wants Johan to sign the divorce papers. In the same sequence not long after Johan admits how much he misses Marianne, Bergman frames the pair of them in medium long shot, allowing plenty space between, before Johan gets up and goes over and slaps Marianne's face. A tussle ensues and the close ups are those of outer conflict rather than the much more frequent Bergmanesque inner conflict. But of course the conflict is both inner and outer as these are two characters who can't easily separate, but have gone through so much pain that we can't see them wrestling happiness from their lives let alone their marriage. In the comedies of remarriage, Cavell suggests not only can the characters go on to live happy lives; they can do so with partners they presumably felt unhappy enough with to want to break up with them.
This is good fortune indeed. Bergman indicates the opposite: these are people who probably won't be content even with someone else. While in His Girl Friday, for example, Hildy can insist that she is more than happy to live in the middle of nowhere and have nothing to do with the newspaper business, we and Walter know that she won't so much be unhappy as dissatisfied. Her new man doesn't have Walter's capacity for danger and fun, for improvisation and loving manipulation. She might be content with her new beau Bruce, but happiness, in director Howard Hawks' formulation, rests in the challenge, not on the supine. Her new man can give her the good life, but not the exciting one. Here she is trading one mild form of happiness for a return to a much greater one that includes excitement and risk. Yet even if the audience knows right from the beginning that Ralph Bellamy's character is no challenge to Cary Grant's, this isn't at all the same as saying that Hildy would be unhappy with Bruce. These are different modes of happiness that she is offered. In tragedies of remarriage we have instead different modes of unhappiness.
Le bonheur is such a provocation because it presents two modes of happiness too, but we cannot easily absorb the costs that happiness brings. It is a cost we are expected to confront and acknowledge at the same time. In His Girl Friday it would be too much to say Hildy would be unhappy with Bruce out in Albany, but she would almost certainly be bored. When Walter says "there is something between us that no divorce can come between" this is a sentiment expressed as comedic wit: it is a line that could easily have come out of the mouth of Groucho Marx. However, the sentiment itself could equally be expressed by Johan too. As Johan refuses to sign the papers he knows that somehow the feelings he and Marianne have for each other are far too strong to be eradicated with a signature. Late in the film, there is even a scene that could easily have been elaborated into comedic farce (and we shouldn't forget Bergman for all the seriousness of his tone occasionally made lighter films like Smiles of a Summer Night, invoked by Cavell on several occasions). Here, long after the spat in Marianne's office, Johan phones a friend while Marianne is kissing and caressing him. He asks for a delicate favour: the use of the friend's holiday home. We only hear Johan's end of the conversation but it is clear the friend assumes Johan is looking to use it for a sexual assignation. Johan plays along, and why not: it is true that is why he wants it, but not because he has found a new young lover, but instead has reignited feelings with his ex-wife.
Near the end of another of Cavell's comedies of remarriage, The Awful Truth, the couple will soon be divorced, but there they are in Connecticut looking like they will be getting back together. The wife says: "...it's funny that everything's the way it is on account of the way you feel." Cary Grant, again, is a bit confused and reckons thing are the way they are because of the way Irene Dunne's Lucy made them. Lucy replies: "Oh no. They're the way you think I made them. I didn't make them that way at all. Things are just the same as they always were only you're just the same too, so I guess things will never be the same again." Cavell quotes this passage and sees in the conversational convolutions similarities with Plato's Parminedes. Yet the comedic tone in The Awful Truth remains no matter the mindbending aspect to Lucy and Jerry's exchange. In the moment in Scenes from a Marriage the comedic is present, but the tone will remain tragic: at any moment we know that this couple could lose their sense of humour, just as we know in the screwball comedies we feel at any moment that they will find it again. In the comedies, the characters seem well capable of seeing their lives differently and so consequently can see their lives as the same again. In the tragedies, this perspectivism is usually very far away, or so absurdly present (as in Le Bonheur) that the seriousness resides in what we cannot take seriously: easily countenancing a new couple out of a recent tragedy.
So far we have only talked about Le Bonheur and Scenes from a Marriage; what about the other films we initially invoked? There are two by Francois Truffaut: The Soft Skin and The Woman Next Door. In The Soft Skin the central character is a married man with kids who embarks on an affair with a young air hostess. Embarking is the operative word here. He is someone whom Truffaut shows constantly on the move and part of this transience would seem to be the affair itself. Yet there is real love there too, and though this well-known writer and editor might want to simplify his life, or rather find a simplicity and intimacy within it with his lover, Pierre (Jean Desailly) instead becomes more and more tense as his life become more stressful. In one scene halfway through the film he takes his lover Nicole (Francoise Dorleac) with him to a small town where he is giving a talk after a film screening and, through various mix-ups, he can't quite connect with her. It is a moment of suspense not in the Hitchcockian sense where there is great practical risk, but in what we could call a Bergmanesque sense: the sort of moment that might later lead to strong feelings and expressions of resentment. It is a scene where Nicole sees her status for what it is. There he is in a cafe talking to a friend from the town who knows him as a happily married man, and there she is, outside having to pretend she doesn't know him. He, of course, wants to get rid of the friend and be with his lover, but he doesn't want to lose status in his friend's eyes, so risks losing Nicole instead. Torn between the Hitchcockian and the Bergmanesque, Truffaut concludes his film on melodrama: the wife shoots him dead.
This is the tragedy of remarriage as melodramatic denouement, but we shouldn't see this as a consequence of Truffaut's obviousness. It is more that Truffaut has a dimension to his work that sometimes feels like it comes from a newspaper headline, and the film is the subtle examination of the melodramatic conclusion. In other words it is not that Truffaut isn't capable of subtlety; more that he searches out the subtlety behind a headline that begs further questions. If The Soft Skin could read: Respected and well-known writer shot dead by wife; The Woman Next Door would be no less tabloid: exes reunite in death pact. In this Truffaut film made almost twenty years after The Soft Skin, the director starts with a couple moving next to another couple, and in time we notice that the wife is actually the former lover of the husband next door. It was a tempestuous affair that had to end for the sake of their sanity, but when chance brings them together again how can they ignore it? Depardieu, who ended it first time round, becomes especially obsessed on this occasion as he allows his family life to unravel in the face of physiological obsession. This is a woman he can't let go, and so by the end of the film he blows their brains out. It isn't quite the pact a newspaper might insist upon, but it is a proper example of l'amour fou.
If we feel it would be unfair to label Truffaut a melodramatic filmmaker generally, it is because he is as interested in procrastination as intensification. Sometimes he will show what happens when a character lacks a strong sense of impetus (in Anne and Muriel for example), on other occasions focus on removed obsession when the love object is still alive (The Story of Adele H), or when they are dead (The Green Room). But it is fair to say that in The Soft Skin and The Woman Next Door he melodramatises the tragedy of remarriage. While the most extreme moment comes at the end of The Soft Skin as the wife enters a crowded cafe and blows him away with a shotgun, the most extreme moment in The Woman Next Door takes place when Mathilde (Fanny Ardant) is trying to distance herself from Bernard (Gerard Depardieu) and he makes an enormous scene at a garden party. Though there are many useful definitions of melodrama, and an important essay by Thomas Elsaesser on the genre called 'Tales of Sound and Fury', one way of looking at it is the making of a scene. Yet in the comedies of remarriage characters make scenes too, but they do not arrive at melodrama. Perhaps we can say that making a scene in a comedy leads to farce; making a scene in a dramatic work leads to the melodramatic. There are plenty farcical moments in the films Cavell invokes. Whether it is Irene Dunne pretending to be Cary Grant's hick sister in The Awful Truth, or Henry Fonda clumsy around Barbara Stanwyck when they first meet in The Lady Eve, making a scene is a farcical affair. Whether as farce or melodrama the point rests in showing a social situation upset. But in the tragedies of remarriage, the upset social situation shows us characters who often don't just lose face, but often lose their identity or their lives. When in Le bonheur the wife is seen lying on the bank of the lake it is a moment of societal dismay: people look on at a personal tragedy that is socially evidenced. The moment where Johan attacks Marianne in Scenes from a Marriage is a more extreme scene, but it lacks social melodrama because it is kept between themselves. The scene at the beginning of Bergman's film where Johan and Marianne are having dinner with another couple possesses this violation of the social norm as they bicker and argue in front of our main characters. There isn't the violence but there is the violation. Often what makes a scene melodramatic, then, is its impact on the everyday as well as, or in the replacing of, the melodrama of a story that builds towards more and more unlikely actions so obviously dictated by the plot.
In this sense The Woman Next Door is more melodramatic than The Soft Skin, though both end on murder. For most of the way The Soft Skin is a gentle film about a man with too much going on in his life trying to find a little tranquillity, and instead adding to his chaos. But it isn't until the film's conclusion that the film turns melodramatic. In The Woman Next Door the films plays up Depardieu's capacity for aggression, and so the ending is just a culmination of the film's melodramatic throughline. It is horrific but perhaps not surprising. In The Soft Skin, the wife breaking into the cafe with a rifle isn't only a surprise to Pierre, but to the audience too. It might be consistent with a nouvelle vague approach to the suddenness of death evident in Le Cousins, Jules et Jim, Paris nous apartient and Vivre sa vie, but it isn't diegetically probable. Central to melodramatic narrative is that the logic of the story leads to ever increasingly excessive behaviour. A film like Fatal Attraction is typically melodramatic as a woman scorned goes over the top in exacting revenge. The ending had been famously changed after test screenings, but this might have been the audience knowing better than the filmmakers the nature of the film. Adapted by James Dearden from his own play, he said in the film "gradually, remorselessly, Dan is made more and more blameless, while Alex turns inevitably more and more into the villain of the piece." (Guardian) The audience knew they were watching a melodrama; the filmmakers played catch-me-up and changed the conclusion. Glenn Close's character is properly punished; Michael Douglas's husband gets to breathe a huge sigh of relief as the bunny boiler is dispatched. Of course films like Fatal Attraction will have plenty moments where the melodrama of plot meets the melodrama of situation, but often in films it is where the two don't come together that we find the tension most pronounced. That early scene with the other couple in Scenes from a Marriage is fraught with a certain type of anxiety missing, say, from, The War of The Roses, with Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner happy to involve anyone in their marital discord.
It is as though there is existential tension versus narrative suspense, with the former close to Sartre's formulation in Being and Nothingness when he says: "Shame is by nature recognition. I recognize that I am as the Other sees me. There is however no question of a comparison between what I am for the Other. In the first place this comparison is not encountered in us as the result of a concrete psychic operation. Shame is an immediate shudder which runs through me from head to foot without any discursive preparation." Melodramatic narrative often removes this shudder; it doesn't quite allow for the comedic shame evident in The Lady Eve, but it doesn't achieve that shudder we often find in sequences where the sense of the Other is present not as an audience but as an onlooker. Comedy often turns the onlooker into an audience: there is the double mechanism of the situation others find absurd within the scene, and the sense of an audience amused by the sequence beyond the scene. Melodrama is more inclined to show the situation as fraught but the audience generically harnessed: safely placed at the one remove that awaits generic devices to be followed through on. In the existential, we may have melodramatic moments, but they are constrained by the sort of dynamic Sartre examines rather than contained by the generic codes that make us feel in a movie rather than watching a situation. In melodrama our shame is secondary to our knowingness; in the existential as Sartre couches it, it is the other way round.
Film might be a voyeuristic medium, but for much of its history it has found ways and means for this fact to be sublimated into the pleasures of narrative fiction. However, many great films while acknowledging the importance of art (the made object) refuse the assertiveness of genre, and allow melodramatic situation to trump generic melodrama. The Woman Next Door is a good film made by a fine filmmaker, but Truffaut never quite accesses the shame of the Other as Bergman so readily does and would often do. Whether it is the scene invoked above in Scenes from a Marriage, or a four way dinner conversation early on in The Passion of Anna, Bergman was always good on the hell that could be other people. Truffaut, of course, finally, a much more existentially gentler filmmaker than Bergman, can conclude on far greater violence without the film necessarily being a more a violating experience. As a tragedy of remarriage The Woman Next Door might be closer to the demands of tragedy as Aristotle would define it: these are characters with fatal flaws and the audience might feel cathartically relieved at the end that they have witnessed extreme actions without feeling they might replicate them themselves. But Bergman much more closely captures the existential tension of being. Indeed Truffaut even downplays it by his formal choices. In the scene where Bernard attacks Mathilde at the garden party, the scene starts with Bernard attacking her in front of others in the house, and through a large window in the sitting room we see the guests in the garden noticing what is going on inside. Truffaut keeps the onlookers outside as figures in baffled dismay, before Mathilde runs out of the house with Bernard following her. Instead of following them, the camera stays indoors, follows other characters as they go to the window, and we watch them looking on as Mathilde and Bernard grapple in the garden before Mathilde passes out. At a couple of moments during the sequence Truffaut utilises Hitckcockian suspense music, but it is as though he wants to find a means of tapping into the melodrama of everyday life. The distanciation required is not to make it overly melodramatic, and yet uses Truffaut music to hint that this is a film with a touch of the generic about it as well.
Yet for our purposes, Scenes from a Marriage and The Woman Next Door are both tragedies of remarriage. The characters are not lucky. And what about Voyage to Italy, La notte and The Red Desert, three Italian films that helped incorporate a new image structure into the cinema, and not least through accepting that marital crisis needed a different means of expression from the approaches hitherto? How can you suggest a marital breakdown utilising the acting styles and camera movements of a screwball? The answer is that you can't. If many found Roberto Rossellini's Voyage to Italy initially so awkward, it rested on the film's attempt to generate a new means of acting and an original use of screen space to suggest the couple's difficulties. A couple getting together, even a couple so obviously getting back together, can still rely on momentum: on a body language and on camera movements based on propulsion. But Rossellini seems to want a reverse tango: instead of two steps forward and one step back, it is more two steps back and one step forward. When Chekhov invoked a tango-like image concerning truth, we could say that Rossellini adopted it and inverted it. The narrator in 'The Duel' says "as they search for truth people take two paces forward and one back." But emotionally in Chekhov's work, which has similarities with tragedies of remarriage, the characters take one step forward and two steps back. This is a narratively recessional cinema that can seem so slow partly because it refuses the momentum allowing cinema so often to be so fast: characters in these faster films of course nevertheless often take one step back and two steps forward. It is why romantic comedies don't end after half an hour, why in action films the hero doesn't promptly best the villain. The films need setbacks to delay the conclusion. But in the recessional drama, in films like Voyage to Italy, La notte and The Red Desert, the entire film carries the force of delay. When in Rossellini's film Ingrid Bergman stays on in Naples while her husband is off enjoying himself in Capri, the film becomes an observational account of a city and an emotional exploration of a woman approaching forty (Bergman was about thirty eight when the film was made) without children. She sees all around her history and fertility, the fixity of statues and numerous pregnant bellies in the Naples streets. The plot doesn't go anywhere here, and doesn't even make strict sense: the continuity is so off that it looks like her husband has the car in Capri while she also has it in Naples.
What Rossellini seems to want to do is find in this failing marriage a new form: a more direct approach to emotions than clothing them in the luxury furs of narrative event. As Laura Mulvey says in 'Vesuvian Topographies': with Voyage to Italy, "out of a minimal plotline and two bewildered actors, he manages to create, in the words of many critics, the first modern film. It is, to paraphrase [Gilles] Deleuze, as though Rossellini uses Bergman and Sanders, in their off-screen and on-screen crises, to enact the crisis of the action image." Mulvey has already talked of the crisis evident in the Bergman/Rossellini marriage at the time, and weaves together the personal and the aesthetic to suggest how fresh the film happened to be. In an interview with Cahiers du cinema and a with director who would himself test out a different type of image structure in his own films, Jacques Rivette, Rossellini said of Voyage to Italy: it "is a film I like very much. It was very important for me to show Italy, Naples, that strange atmosphere which is mingled with a very real, very immediate, very deep feeling, the sense of eternal life."
By taking two steps back and one step forward, Rossellini slowed down the plot of a dissolving marriage, incorporating within it the eternal life of statues from the ancient past, and babies to be in the immediate present. If viewers are a little surprised by the film's ending where Sanders and Bergman look like they will stay together and revitalise their marriage, it rests on the narrative absence for such an assumption, yet nevertheless a certain ontological presence. They have just been to see the remains in Pompei, with bodies sculpted from larva, and have also been caught in a religious procession that has swept them along in its euphoria. Briefly losing each other in the crowd, they find each other again, and Rossellini suggests they find themselves in a deeper sense too as they come together.
Not everyone will buy into the director's ending. This is a marriage on the rocks; the opposite of a rock solid marriage. Yet Rossellini has shown us rocks in other formations too: the statues Katherine (Bergman) looks at during her museum visits, and the dead at Pompeii turned to stone also. Rossellini asks the audience not to see the film as a narrative exploration of a marriage in trouble, but to observe a thematic exploration of stoniness in various manifestations. George Sanders is nothing if not a figure given to stony silence as his wife tries to engage him with her thoughts and feelings; Katherine might herself worry that she is turning to stone, a fossilised woman ageing without children, while seeing fertility all around her on the streets of Naples. When Rossellini talks in the Cahiers interview of Naples, having this "sense of eternal life", this isn't the neo-realist as documentarian, but the neo-realist as image maker. He wants, as Mulvey proposes, to enact a new image structure in film. Not every town or city would allow for this possibility: a place would need a very intrinsic relationship with the eternal. This is the eternal as Charles Peguy might define it and defend it in Temporal and Eternal. "How right the ancients were, dear friend, to have celebrated. Feasted and commemorated the foundation of a city; to have realized that a city was a being, a living being, and that its foundation was no ordinary action, but a religious action; something out of the ordinary and solemn, worthy of solemnization."
This is the solemnity Rivette sees in the director's work in another Cahiers piece: "Rossellini's work 'isn't much fun'; it is deeply serious, even, and turns its back on comedy." Turning towards the eternal rather than the temporal, turning towards the tragic rather than the comic, some might watch Voyage to Italy and witness a ponderous refusal to see that it is absurd. That the idea of the couple getting back together at the end hasn't been earned, and the absence of humour in Rossellini's film will be imposed upon it by an audience refusing to take it seriously and finding the ending risible. Robert Phillip Kolker in The Altering Eye doesn't go that far, but he does say: "the surge of humanity in religious celebration is meant to release the anger and anxieties of the couple and return their faith and hope...the film betrays like many a neo-realist work before it, a readiness to accept sentiment in the place of understanding." But Kolker is perhaps still too concerned with plot and character, instead of seeing like Andre Bazin, whom he quotes, that the film creates "a mental landscape at once as objective as a straight photograph and as subjective as pure personal consciousness." Bazin perceptively pinpoints not just Rossellini's interest in found realities that can serve equally the objective and subjective, but also cinema to come too: Pasolini and Antonioni's later work in very different ways would draw on this capacity for cities and ancient sites to invoke a filmed fact and a mental quality.
Voyage to Italy asks us to accept the ending not on the basis of its plot, but more on the thematic unity of its images. Many good films unite imagery, theme and story, but the notion is that the image serves the story, and the story reveals the theme. In Rossellini's account, the story is no longer the engine room driving the other aspects, but a failed motor relying on the wind in the sails of imagery and thematic inquiry. The film properly drifts, but this is where a filmmaker must trust much more on their instincts, relying on the texture of location and what can be found within it to carry much of the meaning. We have to feel by the end of Voyage to Italy that the laziness of the south the various characters talk about has worked its way into Katherine and Alex's soul, and altered their perspective on their own marriage. While the comedies of remarriage can work a little like Tolstoy's comment in Anna Karenina about happy families resembling each other, the tragedies of remarriage are closer to unhappy families being unhappy in their own way. Will plot allow one to find the singularity of that unhappiness? Rivette interestingly and provocatively claims in his Cahiers review: "for over fifty years now the essay has been the very language of modern art; its freedom, concern, exploration, spontaneity; it has gradually - Gide, Proust, Valery, Chardonne, Audiberti - buried the novel beneath it..." In this sense the tragedies of remarriage we are now discussing (Voyage to Italy, La notte and Red Desert) have this dimension of the essayistic. They are asking questions about relationships and about the spaces in which they take place.
For all Cavell's talk of the green world, a term he borrows from Northrop Frye and where a sense "of perspective and renewal are to be achieved", we do not sense the location becomes that much more than a backdrop in the comedies of remarriage: the places are narrative spaces rather than geographically essayistic. In Rossellini's film, the characters are immersed in Naples, as if their own 'innate' faculties prove weak next to a place that "poisons you with laziness" in Alex's words. It is this notion of enveloping spaces that many great later filmmakers would take from Rossellini: Herzog's megalomaniacs and Roeg's confused individuals, Wenders' Philip Winters in Alice in the Cities, and Rivette's own work, which can use Paris as a mystery even to the locals: (Paris nous apartient, Pont du nord).
To ask of Voyage to Italy a strong story is like asking the screwball comedies to dawdle over locations. It would be a category error, but it was understandable at the time that critics might dismiss the film, because it was as of yet in a category of its own. History has been kind to Rossellini's film because it has generated its own genealogy. We look back and see less its awkwardness than its innovations: its search for putting people into spaces and finding a choreography of crisis that plot cannot yield. If Sanders and Bergman are awkward and stiff this isn't only because (as Mulvey notes) they were uncomfortable with the roles they couldn't quite find in conventional terms, it was also that Rossellini wanted a different approach to the body language of crisis than filmmakers had hitherto offered. If film is an art form that possesses the dimension of the documentary (of a real world that is being filmed), why should filmmakers then put that reality into the background and foreground the story? Why not do the reverse and see if a meaningful world can come out of the reality filmed? This doesn't make Voyage to Italy a documentary, of course, but it means that the story must be 'honest' rather than overly preconceived: as Rossellini says in Cahiers, "starting off with the research and the documentation, and then going on to the dramatic themes, but in order to represent things as they are, to remain on the terrain of honesty." Central to some of the comedies of remarriage is dishonesty and plotting, with Grant's characters in The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday very deliberately trying to win their ex-wives back, while in Lady Eve Barbara Stanwyck is constantly finding ways to manipulate Henry Fonda. These are film that possess strong plots partly because they have characters strongly plotting their moves.
Antonionis's Red Desert and La notte are masterful examples of what happens when you insist the cinematic space is more important than ready character motivation. The more story-driven a film the less likely it will be to draw attention to space. In heavily story-based films, the movies work with utilisable spaces, ripe for action and ready for character purpose. A car chase doesn't allow us to dwell on the city the chase happens to be taking place in, even if a film like Bullitt will make clear the city setting is San Francisco. If the film suddenly drifted off for a minute to concentrate on urban life (people shopping, kids going to school, parents going to the office), we would assume either the filmmaker didn't know what he or she was doing, or happened to be especially canny in doing it. We would probably assume that soon the car chase would be about to intrude on these simple daily tasks. We wouldn't be entirely engaged in the milieu, we would be anticipating the car chase that will soon invade it. Our mind is still, finally, on other things - on the importance of the story. Perhaps we would notice in this scene that our hero's son is going to school, his wife going to work, which would make us all the more aware of the potential catastrophe to come. Will one of the cars mow down the hero's family? Will it be the hero himself? This is what happens to utilisable spaces. But the enervated spaces in Antonioni's films have no such pragmatic function.
In La notte, Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) goes for a walk through the Milan streets. Her lack of purpose is shared by the viewer, but this is augmented with a perceptual awareness on both hers and ours that can come out of the unmotivated action. It is as if we have continuum of focus depending on the perceptual necessity or flaccidity of the character. In Bullitt, Steve McQueen's focus needs to be very precise as he negotiates the streets of San Francisco at high speed. James Stewart in Vertigo possesses a voyeuristic preoccupation that demands careful attention too, but this is the difference between the action hero and the detective. The former must think and act quickly, the private eye slowly and methodically. The detective often confuses the desire to know with the desire to possess. He doesn't have the contracted and task-specific focus of the action hero, but he is very far from one of life's observers. Frequently the detective's deductive reasoning meets with seductive forces that show why he is a fall guy. He can't quite see the nature of the situation because of an aspect of his human nature: his lust for the woman. If the action hero's active concentration is pronounced, the detective's passive concentration is paramount. But in La notte, Lidia's perceptual focus is so vague that we are left wondering what we should attend to because we can't quite decide what she is interested in. One minute she is looking down at a broken clock, another at a worker as he passes her on a street. Then she takes a taxi to the city's outskirts and witnesses a fight that she is slow to protest against. We might say that when she looks at the broken clock she is a woman thinking about her own childless state and time passing. When she sees the worker does she wonder if this is the type of man she should be with, someone who would want to produce a child rather than the literature the husband focuses upon? (Lidia has walked away from his book launch.) Do the men fighting possess a primal force that her cultured husband lacks? These would all be speculations, and the more assertive the critic is inclined to make them, the less they would be understanding Antonioni's sense of inquiry. In an Esquire interview, from 1970, Antonioni said: "My work is like digging, it's archaeological research among the arid material of our times." In Antonioni's book, That Bowling Ally on the Tiber, the narrator says: "yet the mystery remains. And perhaps that's as it should be. Any explanation would be less interesting than the mystery itself." Lidia isn't involved in an action (like McQueen), nor in a deduction (as Stewart happens to be), but is a mystery unto herself. Even in Antonioni films where there happens to be a narrative mystery (Anna going missing in L'avventura, Thomas photographing what seems like a murder in Blow Up, a lover disappearing in Identification of a Woman), Antonioni eschews the revelation all the better to search out a symptomology within the characters. If Anna happened to be found in L'avventura, the mystery of Anna would have been resolved and there would be little mystery in the boyfriend and friend who search for her. But in their semi-aimless quest, further mysteries are explored as they themselves become lovers. We don't know why Anna disappears, but we might speculate over what has happened to her, and what is going on in these characters' lives. This is not quite the same thing as creating answers in our own heads; more accepting the invitation ambiguous events give us to ruminate over the possibilities. The action film asks us to anticipate, the detective film to deduce, but Antonioni asks us to speculate around a mystery that cannot easily be revealed partly because man is a mystery unto himself in a world that is constantly changing and might not even be pertinent to his needs.
It is the problem of people being a mystery to themselves and others that leads to the tragedy of remarriage in La notte and Red Desert. In the latter, Giuliana (Monica Vitti) doesn't know what to love: a collapse and a suicide attempt in the past leaves her perceptually afraid of the world. She is potentially no more than another object in it; not a subject capable of shaping her world and giving it meaning. She has a brief affair with another man, but if she returns to her husband it isn't because she realises she loves him; more that she realises an atrophied being in herself. In La notte, Lidia shows her husband a letter from an ardent lover and her husband doesn't remember that it was a letter he wrote to her years earlier. There are no flashbacks in the film, no explanation of how they got from there to here. We are left with a chasm of life between the letter and the present: their lives a mystery to us and of course also to them. Where does all that feeling go? How can two people so in love become so contemptuous or indifferent; keen at any social event to talk to other people over their spouse?
In the comedies of remarriage time seems to evaporate: the break-ups come down to misunderstandings, and often a healthy sense of humour is enough to bring the couple back together again. The films are consistent with a certain burlesque fascination for shifts in perspective. When at the beginning of His Girl Friday, Cary Grant confuses an old man for Rosalind Russell's new lover, it is a joke on the inadequacy of any potential rival. But it is also a good burlesque joke: the idea of mistaking one thing for another. In The Awful Truth, Grant's ex Irene Dunne turns up at an upmarket party where Grant is getting introduced to his partner's family and pretends to be Grant's loud and vulgar sister. It brings out a new side to Dunne that mortifies Grant but intrigues him even more as she proves a social embarrassment with Grant's potential in-laws. In both instances, perspective counts. This is especially evident at the end of The Awful Truth in the exchange quoted above about things changing based on the way you feel. Possessed of a good sense of humour and the capacity to see things from another point of view is enough to save a marriage.
In tragedies of remarriage and especially Antonioni's films, however, perspective is weak next to time, on the one hand, and motivation on the other. We know that in His Girl Friday and The Awful Truth Grant wants his ex-wife back, and what the couples need to do is find a perspective on events that can bring them back together. They are wrong-headed, but right for each other. This is part of the dramatic irony at work: we can see what the characters cannot. We know for example that Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert are falling in love before they see it themselves in It Happened One Night, but no such dramatic irony can work in Antonioni's films. Half the point is that the characters don't know what they want, and the image reflects this indecision. Lidia's walk through the streets of Milan has no purpose, except perhaps to get away from her husband's launch party, to escape the clamour and glamour.
In Red Desert Giuliana shrinks from her husband rather than moves towards affection with Richard Harris's character. They can't see that a sense of humour would make a world of a difference; they feel they are in a different world. While in It Happened One Night the wealthy Colbert needs to travel America and see how privileged her life has been, thus giving her a healthy perspective as she understands Depression-era America, in La notte and The Red Desert the doses of reality confirm neurosis; they don't counter it. Lidia witnesses the fight between people from the outlying housing estates, Giuliana goes to her husband's factory and senses the engulfing industrial waste. They are of course much deeper characters than Colbert, whose initial action is a moment of impetuous contrariness: she marries a man her husband doesn't like. Lidia and Giuliana don't just lack a sense of humour; they struggle with a sense of self. There is little a Cary Grant could do for these women. While in Philadelphia Story Grant gives Katharine Hepburn a dressing down as he tells her how spoilt she has been, in The Red Desert Harris's character is there to express a certain obscure concern. Giuliana says at one moment she likes the way he looks at her; a look her husband cannot provide. But what is this look, and is it one similar to that the viewer is expected to offer? In the comedies of remarriage, the viewer's look is ironic, aloof, amused. In many of the tragedies of remarriage, and especially in Antonioni's films, the look is troubled, empathic, enquiring. It is a hand on a shoulder rather than a quick remark that carries meaning, and yet paradoxically so: the hand, or the look, or the hesitant word, acknowledges its own limitations. If the comedies of remarriage demand assertiveness, the tragic form offers tentative feeling, as if trying to find a space of truth rather than a witty home truth.
In the romantic comedy there isn't really a notion of truth; it is more that the characters are capable of numerous white lies, evident at the beginning of The Awful Truth with Grant on a sunbed so he can pretend to his wife that he has been in Florida. The comedies work within the parameters of the stable, so that the truth has a status in opposition to the lie. But if Lidia and Giuliana need the truth, this isn't because of a lie they believe their husbands have told - though they may have - it is a metaphysical necessity evident in Giuliana's statement about love. "love your husband, love your son, love a job, even a dog...but not husband-son-job-dog-trees-river." As she lists the things she could care about, she can't find the grounding to love any of them. She needs a sense of truth to exist, but this is a higher case requirement far removed from the lower case demands of the screwball. When Cavell talks of one's luck being met with laughter in our first paragraph, this is where a marriage can be saved by the coordinates of social norms and light perspectives. In a tragedy of remarriage we instead have a metaphysical misfortune: these are characters who cannot laugh their way out of a crisis because the films themselves have dug too deeply into a problem where laughter becomes hollow.
This is precisely what Varda manages to convey in Le bonheur: the difficulty in generating lightness out of heaviness, the sense in which the audience is given the levity of a comedy of remarriage within the context of a woman's suicide. It cannot recuperate optimistic profit from its loss, but that is the point. Of course, if we live in the best of all possible worlds that is the comedy of remarriage, loss can always be turned into profit: a marital crisis, an affair, lies, can all be turned around. But in the tragedies there is a stubborn force that cannot lead to laughter, and an optimistic conclusion would seem like a lachrymose equivalent of internal bleeding. The film might look like it is showing us that everything is all right, but we wouldn't be surprised if at any moment there would be major emotional haemorrhage.
Any wounds in the films Cavell addresses are easily stanched. Even if there are figures humiliated and licking those wounds (like the husbands-to-be in Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday and The Awful Truth), they carry no internal weight as characters. It could be argued that none of the characters in the screwballs carry gravitas, but the leading ones do at least carry with them narrative purpose: the films can easily conclude on them getting back together again and the supporting figures are shown merely to be obstacles in the way of the inevitable. This is partly why the films can end so abruptly: we have witnessed a plot reaching its conclusion rather than characters reaching a point in their lives. In Scenes from a Marriage, La notte, the Red Desert and Voyage to Italy could go on for much longer and for many more years, while Le Bonheur, The Woman Next Door and The Soft Skin utilise the tragic to arrive at a conclusive. In the comedies of remarriage the stories have been plotted to perfection. In the tragedies of remarriage, the narratives have been shaped to imperfection: they have been designed to explore the nature of character over the nature of storytelling, and even the most narratively contrived of the seven (The Woman Next Door) nevertheless allows plenty room for exploration of milieu and character. We feel in the tragedies of remarriage a slender story comes out of an exploration of character and situation; in the comedies of remarriage a strong story gives birth to character and situation. Loose ends are tied up; in Scenes from a Marriage etc. loose lives are left slack, or a categorical tragedy imposes itself. There is little sense of plotting.
Of course, plotting is hardly the exclusive domain of a screwball comedy. Thrillers, action films, even westerns and sci-fil films are often plotted: they possess scheming characters who want certain things. Narratively there isn't a lot of difference between Grant trying to win back Russell by any means he can, and a Bond villain's determination to take over the world. Each allows for strong narrative momentum. But the films we have been focusing upon often show characters who don't know what they want, or want it to the detriment of their well-being. If in La notte Lidia doesn't know if she wants an affair or to remain with her husband, and Katherine in Voyage to Italy looks ready to leave her husband only for the film to conclude ambivalently on what seems like possible continuing happiness, then in The Woman Next Door, Bernard is a man no more capable of plotting his existence as he allows irrational impulses and obsessive thoughts to take over his personality. None of them can quite engineer plot in the way Grant can or a Bond villain manages.
Indecisive characters and inconclusive or categorically bleak conclusions do not generate pleasure but they often generate insight. The comedies of remarriage seem to us to be fine examples of the human predicament, but the tragedies of remarriage offer us an exploration of the human condition. A predicament suggests a messy situation and this is partly why the stories can be tidied up by the end. A condition suggests the long-standing, a state that is unlikely easily to change or go away. This is partly why it is hard to extract humour out of it, and why a change of perspective is unlikely to resolve much of anything. Cavell is right to say that if your love is lucky, your crisis will be greeted by laughter. But it will also be greeted by the comedic because it is a predicament over a condition. It will be contained within emotional parameters that allow it to be accommodated again by narrative parameters. The condition cannot be so contained, and the humorous will give way to the sorrowful, to the metaphysical mysteries of being that leave us with more questions beyond the narrative than can be contained within it. "All good marriages allow for exceptions", Nietzsche proposed, but do they allow for them humorously or tragically?
© Tony McKibbin