The opening credits for Ira Sachs’s third feature, Married Life, are a movie unto themselves, an agitated succession of post-WWII suburbanite symbology (generic, mathematically spaced table settings, paisley wallpaper possessed of a decidedly Charlotte Perkins Gilman-esque patina), inhabited by blank-faced animated cutouts (all vintage Madison Avenue smiles), and scored to Doris Day’s manic rendition of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.”
Unsettling in its frenzied cheeriness, the sequence is also noticeably self-aware, as each image is literally torn asunder to reveal another, subterranean element, typically the names of Married Life’s principal cast and crew. This continuous action fosters expectation and inquiry: What lies beneath? (Given the film’s late-40s setting, it would hardly be a surprise if this sequence’s plasticine matriarch—serving meals and cleaning house with synthetic, mechanized delight—was ripped aside to reveal Rosie the Riveter.)
But Sachs and his co-writer, Oren Moverman, aren’t after such easy game. Each tear in the societal fabric, rather than bringing us closer to concrete understanding, distances us from it. The telling image of the credits sequence occurs when a seemingly private moment is revealed as action on a movie screen, observed by a rapt and mesmerized audience in the dark. Screens within screens, frames within frames—that’s the simplest way of approaching Married Life’s allusive/elusive roundelay. Sachs and Moverman cop to their influences (to these eyes, Married Life’s obvious cinematic touchstones are the multifaceted melodramas of Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, with shadings of Ophuls, Hitchcock, and Preminger), yet they never succumb to them. Rather, they understand the important ways in which art acts as a stimulus to life, and how cinema, an inherently two-dimensional form, can be revelatory, if never entirely explanatory, of human psychology.
This emphasis on the psychological aligns Sachs and Moverman with their direct inspirant, John Bingham, who authored the novel (“Five Roundabouts to Heaven”) on which Married Life is based. Bingham’s tale of a lowly British salesman, Philip Bartels, who plots to poison his wife, Beatrice, is the work of a cynical humanist. His time as an undercover operative for the British intelligence agency (during which he became the unwitting and unwanted model for his acquaintance, John Le Carré’s, fictional MI-6 operative George Smiley) no doubt trained him to expect the worst from people, but Bingham, on the sole evidence of this novel, never lost the ability to recognize human beings’ simultaneous capacity for love and goodness. That’s why Bartels’ poisoning plot is cast as something of an amorous mercy killing. Rather than put Beatrice through a humiliating divorce so that he can be with his mistress Lorna, Bartels thinks it more humane to kill her using the darkroom developing chemical altrapeine, a poison that Bingham notes at the end of the novel is fictitiously named “to save discontented husbands the trouble of searching fruitlessly through medical books.”
There’s more than a hint of moralism to Bingham’s tone, a quite intense belief that one reaps what one sows. Yet he also recognizes that evil can never be fully contained, especially when practiced by a steady hand. Perhaps this is why he chooses to have Bartels’ friend, the sociopath Peter Harding, serve as the novel’s narrator. In every way Bartels’ better, Harding’s desire for his friend’s mistress sets him on his own murderous path, though his actions aren’t meticulously plotted so much as resultant from his strong-willed nature. Harding patiently goes with the flow, while Bartels tries to anticipate every twist and turn, eventually sinking into self-destructive paranoia. The novel concludes viciously, with Harding poisoning Bartels (ostensibly by his friend’s request) and then concluding, “I was always a better man than Bartels, better at everything, including murder.”
Though following Bingham’s general outline, Sachs and Moverman choose not to take Married Life to such outwardly dark territory. Since the confrontational flourish that closed his debut feature The Delta, Sachs has been moving into more and more implicative terrain. A good many complained that his second feature, Forty Shades of Blue, focused too much attention on the mysterious inner yearnings of the statuesque trophy girlfriend Laura (Dina Korzun) as opposed to the more ingratiating bluster of her elder lover Alan James (Rip Torn), though Laura’s triumphal/tragic final exit, in which her very inexplicability mutates into something profoundly elemental (see left), sets the stage for Married Life’s deeply felt examination of the ties that bind.
Sachs and Moverman’s biggest change from Bingham’s source novel, aside from character names, is the transposition of locale from the isle of Britain to the Pacific coast of the United States. Now brought closer to the world of Movies (circa 1949), the only remaining trace of the story’s British origins comes via the character of Richard (Pierce Brosnan) who narrates the love triangle-cum-poisoner’s tale of Harry and Pat Allen (Chris Cooper and Patricia Clarkson) and Harry’s bleach-blond mistress Kay (Rachel McAdams). Richard is less a sociopath in this version than a simmering, desirous observer cut from (James) Masonic cloth. In a brilliant sequence of anachronism and insight (cribbed, in part, from Jean Eustache’s Mes petites amoureuses), Richard goes to a screening of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951), and is noticeably distressed, then strangely empowered upon seeing his onscreen alter ego sucking passionate face with Ava Gardner.
The anxious influence of art on the observer is one of Married Life’s primary themes. When Kay makes her initial entrance—in the lobby of a hotel restaurant where both Harry and Richard are waiting for her—one flashes on Kim Novak’s side-profile first appearance in Vertigo (see right). But Sachs, in collaboration with cinematographer Peter Deming, makes the image his own by having Kay, after a few moments pause, turn towards the camera and smile. Combined with Tindersticks founder Dickon Hinchliffe’s wondrously doting score and Sachs’ trademark off-kilter framing, which subtly blurs the point-of-view (are we seeing Harry’s perspective, Richard’s, or both?), this moment of direct-address sets Married Life’s overall optimist’s tone (however clinical it remains) in stone.
Sachs loves gazing at faces, to use the camera to probe hidden, untold depths of character, so it’s no surprise that he and Moverman shy away from the brutal layer-peeling of Bingham’s source novel. They prefer to view their temperamentally different characters, from moment to moment, as uniquely vital and alive, rather than as personality-bound lambs to the slaughter (and this is not to claim a preference for one artist’s method over the other). After Richard confronts Kay about her feelings for Harry (“Are you in love with him?” he asks. “Yes,” she replies, after a significant moment’s silence.), Sachs lingers on Kay’s face, while Richard hovers, out-of-focus, in the background, pontificating in voiceover about what this woman is or is not revealing. His search for answers only heightens her mystery, even as it provides, if only on a subconscious level, some resonant insight into her humanity.
Each and every character in Married Life holds something back from the people around them, and this veneer is breached constantly throughout. At first, Patricia Clarkson seems to be essaying the supportive/psycho-sensitive spouse role that is her unfortunate stock-in-trade. Sachs even films her at one point lying prostrate, immobile, and frigid on the couch of a country cabin—a painterly composition that speaks superficial volumes about her seeming iciness towards her bespectacled nerd of a husband (vividly underplayed by the chameleon-like Cooper). Then, same shot, her character suddenly becomes welcoming, warm, and erotic in a reveal better left for each audience to experience for themselves.
Motivations are constantly being re-examined in Married Life, though Sachs never privileges one point of view over another. No one character has every single piece of this puzzle; even Brosnan’s narrator, who vanishes for one elegantly long stretch of time to let various events take their course, seems in the dark more often than not, and ultimately admits to the pleasures and necessities of such uncertainty. (“Whoever in this room knows what goes on in the mind of the person sleeping next to you, raise your hand,” he says to aether and audience alike at the film’s climax. “I know you can’t.”) This is the crucial difference between Sachs and Bingham’s points-of-view: the unknown, to this great and gifted filmmaker, is not a destructive concept, but a sustaining one, the very thread that tethers our human race one to another, in pure and impure purpose alike. Or, as Richard simply puts it over the film’s sublime final image (a live-action, screen-within-a-screen pantomime of “married life”): “Funny isn’t it? What we do for love.”
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 6—15.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.