As a sophomore in high school I began reading Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War. I was riveted by its scope, but even as a sixteen year-old with little experience in love and none at all of marriage, I found the representation of the marriage between virtuous and faithful Pug Henry (played by Robert Mitchum in the subsequent miniseries) and his shrewish and difficult spouse, Rhonda (Polly Bergen) to be problematic. Pug is infatuated with Pamela Tudsbury (the beautiful and winsome Victoria Tennant), but he refuses to act on his feelings because of those pesky wedding vows.
The novel’s solution–to be repeated over and over through countless novels, films, and other narratives–was to make Rhonda not only a shrew but a cheater herself, freeing Pug to be both infatuated but put upon, emotionally adulterous and yet the victim. Oftentimes the blame for the marriage not working comes from the partner’s infidelity, but it doesn’t have to be linked to an affair. What is central is that the partner of the protagonist, whether male or female, be shown to be somehow responsible for the lion’s share of why the marriage doesn’t work.
I found myself thinking about Pug and Rhonda quite a bit this month as film after film replayed the same formula. Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina rightly shows Anna’s (Keira Knightley) frustration at the hypocrisies of a society that accepts her brother’s affairs but not her own. More to the point, though, it shows her husband’s piety and fidelity as something smothering and somehow morally or emotionally wrong. Karenin is more sympathetic than many a wronged spouse, yet his coldness is presented within the film as ample reason for Anna’s bullish insistence that she would rather be with her lover, consequences be damned.
Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz asks viewers to root for Margot (Michelle Williams) to choose happiness over fidelity, justifying her own flirtations with a neighbor by having her husband (Seth Rogen) rebuff an ill-timed amorous advance and look clueless at her attempts to explain how much “courage” it takes to express desire for him. She makes an appointment to kiss her beloved a couple of decades into the future, grousing that after thirty years of being faithful to her husband she will have earned one kiss from someone else. This is, I think, supposed to make her come off as virtuous, but instead it makes her look somewhat petulant. Fidelity is something that she must be compensated for, not something that is seen as intrinsically good, and certainly not something that is seen as building a foundation for happiness by encouraging us to do that which works instead of that which circumstances conspire to fool us into thinking will work better.
David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival and is on several shortlists for the Academy Awards. It begins with Pat (Bradley Cooper) released from a mental health facility where he went after the discovery of his wife’s sexual liaison with a colleague exacerbates his manic depression. Most of the structure of the film is about his trying to win her back–she has placed a restraining order against him–but, sure enough, the film makes her adultery the mechanism whereby he can be both a good guy and available to the equally messed up Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). The film’s coda is delivered by Pat’s father (Robert DeNiro) who states that whether or not his wife ever loved him, she doesn’t now, not like Tiffany, and that it would be a “sin” to walk away from a chance at happiness for any reason, least of all a vow before God to love someone until death does them part.
Love is the secular American religion. It is the consideration around which all decisions are made and by which all questionable decisions are justified. Its pursuit is the pursuit of happiness, its attainment the validation of whatever process is used to achieve it. And yet the characters in these films cannot simply and baldly own that priority. Conventional and, yes, religious morality continues to inform our conceptions of what it is to be a good, loving person. Else why must its pursuit be justified, and why are the justifications so drearily and predictably similar?