“They don’t look very happy.”
“Why should they? They just got married.”
As this cynical, even grim little exchange that opens the Stanley Donen-directed, Frederic Raphael-scripted 1967 film Two for the Road immediately makes clear, the relationship between Joanna and Mark Wallace (Audrey Hepburn, Albert Finney) isn’t exactly the picture of connubial bliss. When, while driving, they chance across a glum pair of newlyweds, prompting this conversation, the Wallaces are over a decade into their own marriage. In light of the coldness and tension between them, their frequent bickering and their open talk about the possibility of divorce, it appears that the end of their shared road through life may be within sight — a road comprising numerous literal journeys throughout France that, taken together, offer a multifaceted portrait of their marriage and how they reached this point.
The film depicts the couple’s past journeys through the use of flashbacks, but instead of presenting each of them as a solid, uninterrupted segment, as might be expected, it jumps freely from one time period to another. In some instances, it might be said to flow rather than jump. A setting, an action, a remark — any little thing might connect one era to another. The Mark of the earliest period, hitchhiking with Joanna, vows that he’ll never drive by someone seeking a ride; cut to the present, where the Mark of today does just that. He’s changed over the years, and so has she, yet the way these scenes from the past essentially co-exist with the scenes from the present suggests that their old selves, their prior experiences and the various phases of their relationship live on in some sense.
While the Wallaces seem disillusioned now, it’s worth noting that they’re shown having doubts and issues from the very beginning. Joanna, a choir member traveling with other young women from her singing group when they first meet, doesn’t form a particularly favorable impression of Mark upon seeing him lazing on a cart pulled by a tractor: “I’d never even spoken to you and I thought you looked insufferable. The girls were potty about you, and so, heaven knows, were you.” It isn’t love at first sight on his part either: he essentially gets stuck hiking with Joanna after all of the other choir members catch chicken pox, including the one he really has his eye on (Jacqueline Bisset). Even after they start to warm up to each other a bit, he goes on and on about how he has no intention of marrying and tying himself down, at least not for another forty years. Before long, unlikely though it appears at first, passion arises between Mark and Joanna. They agree that this love affair should be merely a passing fling, something to fill the brief period before Joanna has to rejoin the choir, a “short and happy” romance — but when the time comes for them to part, they realize that they want something more permanent.
Taken on their own, these scenes from the couple’s earliest days might form a fairly conventional romantic comedy: two people meet, overcome their initial resistance to each other and to making a commitment, fall in love and decide to marry — but this is a film about what happens beyond that “happily ever after” moment. For the first several years, their happiness endures, by and large. Although they have their differences of opinion (about whether they should have children, for example), their mutual infatuation seems to prevent them from taking any of their disagreements too seriously. (Maybe that’s part of their problem afterwards, when the infatuation fades and they can no longer overlook their differences.) Even challenging or frustrating moments — like their vacation with Mark’s unbearable former girlfriend (Eleanor Bron) and her equally unbearable husband (William Daniels) and daughter (Gabrielle Middleton), or their road trip in a car that bursts into flames — have an air of good humor about them. In contrast, the scenes set later in the marriage often have a darker, heavier atmosphere, and they’re full of bitterness, recriminations, infidelities and other broken promises and lost illusions. The honeymoon is over, and so, perhaps, is the entire marriage.
“We’re not going on like this for the rest of our lives,” Mark says in the present, near the start of the film. It’s a statement of despair, of near-hopelessness, yet only a little while later, in the middle of a caustic argument about their wants and their lifestyle, he blurts out, “Joanna, I love you!” Maybe their old love lives on like their old selves and their old experiences, even though it’s changed over time and all but disappeared from view; if so, the road ahead of them may be longer than it looks.
This post is part of Audrey at 90: The Salute to Audrey Hepburn Blogathon, hosted by Sister Celluloid. Click the banner above to see all of the other great posts.