Scenes From a Marriage: A Devastating Journey Through Matrimony in Film

Highlighting world cinema’s predominant view of marriage as just short of apocalyptic, Mike LeSuer lists thirteen films to stay far, far away from before tying the knot. 

Back in the early ’50s, Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story may have been seen as world cinema’s ultimate heartbreaking family drama, telling the tale of an old Japanese couple who outlive their children’s affection. Their excitement at the idea of a family vacation quickly turns to passive disappointment at the state of the changing world as each of their ungrateful, estranged children neglect them due to busy work schedules.

Yet cinematic couples have rarely seen the relative bliss of Ozu’s couple over the past six decades, as on-screen divorce rates, dead child hauntings, and incidents involving doom-saying foxes have spiked since then. After Bergman, Fassbinder, and Antonioni made scenarios of domestic unrest cinematically appealing, a unique psychological terror specific to the genre was born, giving numerous physical manifestations to the complex sets of exclusively-marital emotions untranslatable to any verbal language.

As a comprehensive history of film’s married couple, this short collage focuses on the individual chapters of married life, serving as puzzle pieces to construct the wider narrative of cinema’s bleak view of matrimony running itself into the ground.

enemy

Prologue: Impending espousal inspires split in identity, crippling fear of self (Enemy, dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2013)

As he suffers a neurotic case of pre-engagement jitters, Professor Adam Bell receives an eerie visitation from the Ghost of Relationship Future, providing him with a vision of an undesirable post-marital identity. Distracted by the literal exposition of his fear, Adam is unable to look beyond the physical identicality of his doppelganger to heed the moral decay expressed most explicitly in the double’s casual infidelity. With a splash of heavily symbolic arachnophobia, his fear of immobility within the spun web of marriage is alluded to frequently in dreams – even in his waking life it’s briefly accentuated in his lectures on totalitarianism and loss of individuality. The only clarity in the film’s ambiguous terror is in Adam’s becoming his own worst enemy, which sees some resolution after the erasure of future-self and present-girlfriend. However, ambiguity prevails in the closing moment, when it’s up to the viewer to decide whether Adam’s final sigh can be interpreted as an uncharacteristically calm response to his crippling fear of the future (as suggested by the film’s optimistic epigraph: “Chaos is order yet deciphered”), or the first symptom of his transition into his unflappable alter-ego.

rachel

Chapter 1: Wedding weekend sabotaged by narcissistic black sheep sister (Rachel Getting Married, dir. Jonathan Demme, 2008)

Documenting the wedding weekend as a cathartic airing of grievances for a damaged family (and adapting the soon-to-be-husband to his bride’s dysfunctional genealogy), Rachel Getting Married paints the ceremony of marriage as an Aboriginal coming-of-age ritual in its unbearable pain and utter necessity. Overcoming the hardships of whatever arachnoid paranoia her groom believes he’s faced, all it takes is one rehabilitating sister, whose drug-addled past and self-centered presence re-opens poorly-healed-over familial wounds, to let loose a chain reaction of psychological trauma requiring more than a mere twelve steps to resolve. Though Rachel’s special day goes mostly unspoiled, the foreboding implications of her capricious reunion with Kym – marked by her inability to offer her sister forgiveness – and the traces of instability ultimately dissolving her parents’ marriage weigh heavily on her as she embraces a new human as a permanent fixture in her life.

bitter

Chapter 2: Recently-weds’ first trip to India spoiled by tales of marital hell imparted by strange old pervert on cruise ship (Bitter Moon, dir. Roman Polanski, 1992)

Considering past events in the Roman Polanski universe of sexual humiliation and ill-fated relationships (gender role cosplay, a handful of murders, marriage to a satanist and subsequent impregnation by the devil, etc.), the plight of Bitter Moon’s young couple almost seems insignificant on the surface. As robbed-of-innocence bystanders, Nigel and Fiona Dobson witness secondhand the horrific results of a marriage based on an ongoing rivalry for the relationship’s upper hand, which, like a car crash, is both terrifying and impossible not to want to get a better look at. Bashfully curious Nigel allows himself to be seduced by the old man’s librettos and his young wife’s stilettos, consequently committing dual delinquencies behind his own wife’s back. The cruise ship becomes another symbol of marriage as a severely limiting snare as Nigel constantly finds himself on deck looking out to sea from the claustrophobic confines of his plateaued relationship. In an alternative story arc, Chapter 2 tells the story of a young couple’s first experience watching a Polanski movie together, the wife demanding they shut it off and the husband childishly returning to it when his wife falls asleep.

to the wonder

Chapter 3: Feelings of isolation, instability, and existential unease derail rushed relationship (To The Wonder, dir. Terrence Malick, 2012)

While Bitter Moon highlights the initial stage of doubt in marriage, To the Wonder despondently confirms the impermanence of any extreme feeling. Going so far as to draw parallels to a priest losing his faith, Malick’s portrait of a committed relationship naive to the temporary spell of limerence brings a sobering plotlessness to the conventionally tumultuous narrative of on-screen romance. What little we’re given plotwise is exposed in body language and introspective voiceover, likely speaking to the instability of a relationship in which neither party is able to be completely open with the other. Though Neil and Marina don’t tie the knot until Marina has been displaced from her native Ukraine to Neil’s anticlimactic Oklahoma homestead, displaced from Oklahoma due to an expired visa, and finally romantically reunited with an unfaithful Neil back in the Sooner State, her re-emigration to the claustrophobically cruiseship-like rural residence of her boyfriend yields little satisfaction as their imminent wedding takes their relationship south quickly.

little otik

Chapter 4: Infertility leads to deteriorating mental states, baby fever engulfs all (Little Otik, dir. Jan Švankmajer, 2000)

As we may have learned from the surrealist sketches of Tommaso Landolfi and Felisberto Hernandez (contemporized by a comically antisocial Ryan Gosling), a certain mania is born from a dire need for human companionship, which projects life into inanimate surroundings. In Little Otik, we see this effect uniquely take place in the context of a childless couple, who begin to suffer the hallucinatory phenomena apparently linked to an inability to conceive. What begins as innocent double-take-worthy scenes of street vendors fishing human children out of a tank, wrapping them in newspaper, and handing them to customers (the doppelganger even makes a reappearance as dad catches a glimpse of his double partaking in the infant issuance) turns fatal when Jan jokingly presents his wife with a tree stump resembling a child, ultimately growing into the most hideous progeny this side of Rosemary’s baby. As Bozena begins cradling, pampering, and breastfeeding the log, her adoption of a physical object to project her mounting desire upon turns it into an animated savage of exponential growth, literally swallowing up everyone within the branch’s reach of the couple’s apartment building. What starts as an empathetic story of a young couple’s despair violently shifts into a cautionary tale about defying nature in times of desperation. Or a case study of the relational rifts expected in dealing with the ethical obligations of raising a problem child.

don't look

Chapter 5: Death of the firstborn, birth of grief (Don’t Look Now, dir. Nicolas Roeg, 1973)

Among the few events in a marriage more grievous than an inability to conceive is the passing of a child – real or arboreal. As we learn from Rachel’s parents in Rachel Getting Married (as well as countless other examples), the grief following the death of a child is often so great that it destroys even the most stable marriages. In Don’t Look Now, the unfortunate couple grows apart in their dissimilar discourse with their deceased descendant, as Laura Baxter becomes obsessed with hearing from her daughter through a psychic, while her husband John is haunted by the image of her bright red rain coat traversing Venetian cathedrals and alleyways. As in Otik, the allusions to childlessness are almost comical following Christine’s death, as (presumably) less-hallucinatory visions of serial killer victims – and dolls – being pulled from canals and premonitory occurrences of his own death plague the grieving father throughout the remainder of the film.

red desert

Chapter 6: Existential unease revisited (Red Desert, dir. Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964)

In the post-traumatic state of alienation following the shared grief of a child’s death (or the individual grief suffered after surviving a minor car accident), empathy is crucial to making a full recovery. Yet in Red Desert, the suffering spouse has no alienated mate to turn to, as her husband is oblivious to her existential afflictions oddly mirrored in their exotic industrial surroundings. What’s so disheartening about the film is the futility of its simple, immediate resolution – the convenient arrival of a handsome stranger who understands Giuliana’s existential despair is unable to offer her solace. Though misery may love company, “grief doesn’t comfort grief,” as Nicolas Roeg puts it, even in a film where a specific form of grief is the point of attraction for two strangers, rather than a point of separation for an intimate couple. Despite legal bonds, sexual attraction, and spiritual connections, at the end of the day, as Giuliana groans, “we are all separate.”

force

Chapter 7: The fatal ski trip (Force Majeure, dir. Ruben Östlund, 2014)

A fitting sequel to mom and dad’s pre-marital hiking trip in Eurasia, Force Majeure pits a young family against the unstoppable power of nature that is human cowardice. As in Red Desert, the mounting psychological trauma surpasses the effects of any physical harm potentially done to the Swedish family that slowly unravels after not getting wiped out by a “controlled” avalanche. Behind the constant Coenesque feeling of “am I allowed to laugh at this?” lies the tragedy of an unhappy couple whose relationship has eroded into mere performance for the sake of their children, pathetically literalizing this concept before returning home.

sunrise

Chapter 8: Mid-life crisis: the affair, the attempted murder, and the rebirth of affection (and grief, and affection again) (Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, dir. F.W. Murnau, 1927)

Over the course of two days, Sunrise depicts the see-sawing extremes of a mid-life crisis, as the husband’s contrasting marriage-related feelings have escalated to the point of uninhibited violence towards his wife. Or maybe it’s love – he’s not really sure. His turbulent bipolarity is in stark contrast with this list’s namesake, which charts these same shifting emotions over the course of several decades (and to a much lesser extreme). As is explored in much more depth four decades later in the case study of Travis Bickle, the male protagonist finds himself at the climax of his life, as if every event has led up to this moment, though he’s not entirely sure what that moment is supposed to be. Suffering recent emotional separation from his wife proves unfortunate for her as yet again the steamroller of human cowardice sets its course on her trembling innocence. But after much karmic reimbursement – the man alternatingly suffers for his betrayal and is rewarded for his unrealized loyalty – the couple survives the stormy waters of their marital disruption to experience yet another heavily-symbolic sunrise.

medea

Chapter 9: Dad’s a bastard, mom overreacts (Medea, dir. Lars von Trier, 1988)

There comes a time in every marriage when dad must abandon his family to marry into royalty and mom must express her understandable irritation to her husband by murdering everyone close to him. In this adaptation of Euripides’ miserable play (made unsurprisingly more miserable by the man whose career seems to be based on the apparent anguish of married life), the odd, ethereal lighting provides a feeling of otherworldliness as if presenting the story from the rage-distorted viewpoint of Medea, whose perception of everything has changed upon her husband’s disloyalty. As a testament to the binding contract of marriage, Medea’s acts symbolically refute the existence of their union (offing their offspring) and eliminate the possibility of an alternative future for Jason (poisoning his fiancee and the king, her father) in light of the destiny he initially chose for himself by marrying her. The reality she forces upon him is strictly purgatorial, drawing out the feeling of guilt upon his betrayal for the rest of his life.

possession

Chapter 10: Chaos reigns (Possession, dir. Andrzej Żuławski, 1981)

Doppelgangers, murders, and insatiable monsters resurface as messy divorce and violent, milk-soaked seizures are added to the narrative. Order is still to be deciphered.

brood

Chapter 11: The custody battle (The Brood, dir. David Cronenberg, 1979)

In extreme circumstances, the body is capable of incredible feats. The Brood is David Cronenberg’s semi-autobiographical illustration of this, as the hinted-at irrational jealousy of Nola Carveth takes the physical form of impish red-cloaked children (that look peculiarly like John Baxter’s guilt), who wreak havoc on the whole family. After losing his wife to the bizarre side-effect of a drug meant to curb mental disturbances (which are brought upon by abusive parents), Frank Carveth is tasked with protecting their daughter, Candice, from her mother’s untameable rage, which threatens to perpetuate her destructive family history to future generations. While the dysfunctional elements of the marriage were masked by performance in Force Majeure, Frank is forced to conceal any evidence of Candice’s mother for fear of her contagious epidermal blemishes…er, hereditary emotional disturbances.

woman

Epilogue: Life under sand (Woman in the Dunes, dir. Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964)

As each one of these films focuses on a specific ugly chapter in the cinematic story of marriage, perhaps the most bleak perspective is that of the distant observer. In Woman in the Dunes we’re presented with a couple who we study in the same way the man-in-the-dunes observes the insects he collects: helplessly confined to a man-made container, learning to adapt to their unbearable living conditions, and ultimately adopting a mindset not unlike Stockholm Syndrome. The immediacy of futility within the realm of marriage (literalized by a pit of sand barely large enough for a shack) is made obvious to the audience, as well as Junpei, the marriage’s victim, as he tries climbing his way out of the pit only to cause a small avalanche of the dry, irritating substance. The nameless widow has become accustomed to the ridiculous challenges of shoveling sand all night to keep from being buried in it and rationing water and supplies, having already survived a previous marriage. At times the viewer, like Junpei, gets caught up in the goings-on of their subterranean seclusion involving steamy sexual encounters and creative domestic embellishments, but every above-ground shot looking down on their pitiful pitfall (literally) reminds us of the infinite world outside.


AuthorMike LeSuer is a freelance writer with a focus on film, music, and media studies. His work has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal and Flyway Journal of Writing and Environment, and he currently holds the position of Editorial & Media Archivist Intern at Facets.

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