On "Two for the Road" and the New Freedoms

As cultural artifacts go, Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road (1967) is a strange beast, a Hollywood movie made just at the moment that the studio system was breathing its last.  Bolstered by bankable movie stars and directed by studio mainstay Donen, but “experimentally” edited and wittily scripted by Frederic Raphael, it has one foot in classical Hollywood and one foot in the nouvelle vague.  It’s also interesting to consider in light of the new permissiveness of American cinema in the late 1960s.  Two for the Road was released one year after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (dir. Mike Nichols, 1966) broke new ground in the use of profanity in movie dialogue, and it ends with an exchange between Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney that would have been unthinkable in a film of, say, 1963. 

They’re stopped at a border checkpoint between France and Italy.  Finney has (as usual) misplaced his passport.  Hepburn (as usual) produces it with an air of affection mixted with self-satisfaction, a kind of “what would you ever do without me?” attitude.  They’ve been playing this little game all throughout the movie (and all throughout their ten-year marriage).  As a final gesture, it tells us that, whatever bumps may come, they’re going to continue on down the road together.  “Bitch,” he says.  “Bastard,” she replies.  Finis.  It prefigures the final lines of Raphael’s screenplay for Eyes Wide Shut (1999), in which another couple (Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman) symbolically renew their marriage vows with a similarly profane exchange (in the middle of F.A.O. Schwartz, no less): “There is something very important that we need to do as soon as possible.” / “What’s that?” / “Fuck.”     

On the subject of fucking, Two for the Road is also surprisingly modern, again due mostly to Raphael’s attempt at a very grown-up (but not too grown-up) screenplay.  The film feels like a conscious effort on the part of 20th Century Fox to serve up a marital drama that’s as sophisticated about sex as European films had been for over a decade, or at least since Jeanne Moreau’s extramarital orgasms in The Lovers (dir. Louis Malle, 1958).  From their very first meeting, when Finney’s character accuses Hepburn of being a virgin, sex is a crucial part of their relationship and a regular topic of discussion.  As things unfold, they talk constantly about sleeping together (though this often is used to set up some sort of comic gag); then, as their desire for each other begins to wane, about no longer wanting to sleep together; and, from there, about wanting to sleep with other people (and actually doing so).  What once would have been an offense punishable by death (or worse) has become a marital truth universally acknowledged. 

The institution of marriage itself ends up becoming the thing that makes this new permissiveness possible.  Having placed its moral investment in the unit of the couple, the film is willing to excuse whatever indiscretions their relationship may house.  Toward the end of the film, Hepburn and Finney pull their car over in order to patch up their latest squabble with a little roadside shag.  Finney hesitates (uncharacteristically), whereupon Hepburn reminds him that everything is above board—they’re married.  It’s a move typical of Hollywood cinema’s willingness to dip its toe in the new freedoms of the post-Production-Code era, so long as it has something with which to cover its ass.

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