Has it ever really been useful to point out that life isn’t like the movies? Certainly not to a film critic whose life has ever laid him low. To him, that lame aphorism is not only useless, but infuriating. The difference between movies and life might be the only thing he ever truly understands; reminding him of it only aggravates him, as would, for example, reminding a social scientist that the conclusions of her research are sometimes predictable and intuitive.
Of course life isn’t like the movies. It isn’t like anything. It’s life. But the movies must mean something major to us, must command some awesome lifelike power, for how else could a series of two-dimensional shadows on a wall ever be called “larger than life”? How else has it become so compulsively, counterintuitively tempting to turn to movies for immaterial solace and vicarious self-actualization?
Ironically, it seems to be the movies about domestic decay that most incline us to do this. John Curran’s We Don’t Live Here Anymore gives us two broken marriages, crumbling in parallel. The breakage is very lifelike, but the parallel is convenient and a touch literary. The film was adapted from short stories by Andre Dubus, though, and the two husbands are literature professors, so why not?
When Terry (Laura Dern) tells her husband, Jack (Mark Ruffalo), “You don’t love me,” he vows that it’s not true, then erupts, “When you say shit like that, for one minute it is the truth!” Later, Jack confesses his love for their friend Edith (Naomi Watts), and Terry is completely wrecked. “Just take it,” Jack shouts. Soon enough, she has taken up with Edith’s husband, Hank (Peter Krause).
The men turn out to be rather mediocre adulterers—their energy seems to have polarized between the groin and the head. Jack analyzes his feelings instead of really having them, and Hank, who is also a novelist, aloofly indulges himself as if licensed to do so simply because he is a writer in need of material.
Yes, there are kids, and they will suffer from this, as kids usually do. Curran tends to treat them as placeholders, and the shorthand of their innocent—or worse, knowing—faces isn’t quite enough, narratively. But he also gets across the important idea that they’re resilient, too, as kids usually are.
We Don’t Live Here Anymore isn’t quite the don’t-see-this-if-you’re-about-to-propose type of picture that some folks have suggested. Weirdly, the movie didn’t seem as utterly devastating as I’d hoped. Maybe because I have performed in what might still be the most complete account of conjugal cruelty in American dramaturgy, Edward Albee’s fiercely sensitive masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Or maybe because I’ve lived a little.
The pathos in Curran’s film is shallow because there isn’t enough about where these lives came from or where they’re going. The suggestion that crossing beyond the border of their little college town might just make them disappear works for Dubus because he has a knack for giving narrative ellipses the force of exclamation marks. It’s a trickier feat for a movie director, though.
Whether Jack is more bothered by betraying his wife or by staying with her, Curran doesn’t declare, and this perverse ambiguity might be the movie’s bravest, most lifelike move.
Patrice Leconte’s recent film, Intimate Strangers, is itself a perverse ambiguity, full of narrative ellipses, sort of an inversion of We Don’t Live Here Anymore. Leconte’s movie takes the tone of a wry, titillating thriller and makes a broad crack about the usefulness of therapy to romantic relationships. It transcends the drudgery of itemized domestic disappointment by means of itemized fantasy. It is consciously much more like the movies than life. And it, too, is somewhat unsatisfying.
Here William (Fabrice Luchini), a meek tax accountant, lets an attractive, mysterious woman (Sandrine Bonnaire) believe he’s the psychoanalyst from two doors down the hall, simply because the woman’s story of her broken marriage intrigues him. The disquieting idea that he’s just toying with her is mitigated by the possibility that she might just be toying with him: Not long after it comes out that William’s not really the shrink, it also comes out that she always knew so. Then there is the matter of whether the woman’s perversely jealous husband, or any of her story, is real or imagined. Naturally, the rapport grows.
William, with his ingrained decorum and wide eyes, sometimes has the face of a small animal just on the verge of domestication: He will require some coaxing, and patience. He tries to get information about the woman from the real analyst, who refuses to give it up but charges him for a session anyway. “We both treat the same neuroses,” the doctor says. “What to declare and what to hide.”
Intimate Strangers presents the sort of risk-free romantic ride that Curran’s characters might have fantasized for themselves, had they the imagination for it. It is unrealistic, but well attuned to the impulse by which we organize our lives into stories: Leconte keeps us wondering what happens next, how it will end. His technique includes lots of quick fades to black, little almost-endings. And here, in the illusion of control, movies have a terrific advantage over life.
Buñuel rhapsodized that the great gap between fact and possibility is inherently more pronounced, and more useful, in cinema than in any other art. Hitchcock put it less mysteriously, but no less impishly, when he said that movies are like life with all the dull bits cut out. Woody Allen, standing in line at the cinema in Annie Hall, pulled Marshall McLuhan out of nowhere to rebuke a blowhard, then turned to the audience and said it directly: “If life were only like this!”
We Don’t Live Here Anymore and Intimate Strangers both disappointed me, as life sometimes has, but each in its way did a good job of being a movie, and that’s worth something.
Sometimes when I see a really lousy film, I’ll grouse, “That’s two hours I can’t get back!” But I never seem to walk out of the things, no matter how rotten they get. I’m not someone who does that. Maybe it’s a kind of optimism: the hope that a film might improve, or at least yield some good nudity or the chance for a deliciously catty review. But maybe it’s cravenness, too. When whatever awaits me in the world might well be worse, or vastly less entertaining, going to the movies becomes a way of staying safe. On the other hand, I haven’t walked out of life yet either. I always want to see what happens next, how it will end.
Maisonneuve contributing editor Jonathan Kiefer writes about the arts for various publications in San Francisco, where he lives. One of his cats is named after Preston Sturges. Film Flâneur appears every other Thursday.