I was around six when my parents began divorcing, a two-year bickering lurch of which I most remember hiding under a bed. I was old enough to understand what was happening, but too young to get that it wasn’t my fault. Worst of all, I had no images with which to identify. I struggled to find a model for how divorced couples and their kids behaved, but came up empty. It seemed a subject that people not only didn’t discuss, but avoided.
The gift my parents’ breakup gave me was that it made me a moviegoer. The VCR became a way to deal with my troubles. I gravitated in particular toward stories about couples, with love lost and found: the church reunion in Sunrise, the spaghetti dinner and card game at the heart of The Apartment. Nights of Cabiria showed a woman who kept getting hurt in relationships, and I watched it over and over to try to understand how my parents had hurt each other.
It was nearly a decade after their breakup when I saw Voyage to Italy. Roberto Rossellini’s film follows a couple on a trip: She wants to explore, he wants to drink and philander, and it grows obvious in a hurry that they never had much in common at all. The man says eventually that he wants a divorce, and I nodded and thought, “Yes that’s good, get away from each other, and get away soon before you fuck up the kids.” But the film ends in a crowded town square, where they lose each other, then find each other again, and embrace and promise never to leave each other while someone cries, “Miraculo!” I’ve grown more attached to this blatant fantasy since then, but on my first viewing I loathed it. It was too close to my dream, long harbored, that my parents would reassemble. Projected now, though, this vision looked fake.
A few years later, I came to Scenes from a Marriage. Rossellini in 1953 had shaken neorealism by shooting actors against documentary landscapes; Ingmar Bergman in 1974 had shot deep into psychological realism by following two people in a room as they argued for an hour. Sometimes they slugged each other, sometimes kissed each other, and the fact that the violence came from love struck me as right in a way I’d never thought. But by the time Bergman’s couple snuck off to the woods together, years after ending their union, and hid from their new spouses with each other in the storm, I’d stopped believing them. Bergman’s film, so honest, had cheated. “And that doesn’t happen in real life,” I thought.
I settled briefly on Love Streams, a Cassavetes-fied view of unstable parents, but the protagonists were so crazy (and lonesome, and desperate) that identifying with them hurt too much to bear. So I moved on and on, looking for works to keep me company. (I lived with my mother for much of this time, and Kramer vs. Kramer’s grotesque caricature of a working mom made me want to punch a wall.) My models of divorce were makeshift, provisional, ranging from Angels in the Outfield to What Maisie Knew. I supported each with the myth that divorce could be modeled at all.
Last week, I saw Tuesday, After Christmas, a new Romanian movie. The film opens with two lovers in bed. She pokes fun at his toes, he mouth-farts on her stomach. “They look so happy,” I thought, then thought about why, and wasn’t surprised to learn that the man was cheating on his wife.
His wife looks average, and so does he; she wears her glasses with her head down, he wears his tight red athletic T-shirt that shows the blubber of middle age. Director Radu Muntean, like Bergman, keeps the camera close, and follows them. The man’s ditching a dull, dark-haired woman for a beautiful blonde, a trite situation that still happens every day. And when his wife learns, rips off her glasses, and flips out, it isn’t because she will miss him, but because she thinks she’s an idiot and hates being taken for a fool. And he stands there, absorbing it, knowing her anger won’t matter. He’s still made his decision, and they’ll still have to keep dealing with each other. After all, there are kids.
The kids sing a few Christmas carols and the husband slips his wife a present behind the back, then credits roll and lights up. The lobby was already crowded when I got to it, and though I’d known many of the people in it beforehand, they looked different now. I felt a little less alone, slightly, and wondered what they had gone through. A good movie can do that—not give you a mirror of your story, but a parallel one that you recognize, which helps you realize that others might feel the same way. For a few moments I grew more sensitive to and aware of everyone that surrounded me, before going back to my usual state. I don’t think my parents will see this movie, and anyway I wouldn’t want them to, because it wouldn’t change anything. They’d still feel what they felt about each other, and maybe send holiday wishes.
“And that’s what happens in real life,” I thought. “I keep hoping, but little changes.”
The 48th New York Film festival runs from September 24 to October 10. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.