HCF REWIND NO. 265: TWO FOR THE ROAD [US 1967]
OUT NOW ON DUAL FORMAT BLU-RAY AND DVD, FROM EUREKA ENTERTAINMENT’S ‘MASTERS OF CINEMA’
RUNNING TIME: 111 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Successful and wealthy architect Mark Wallace and his wife Joanna Wallace fly to Northern France in order to drive to Saint-Tropez. They are going there to attend a party which will celebrate the completion of a building project for a client, Maurice. Tensions between the couple are evident, and as they journey south they both remember and discuss several past journeys along the same road, and wonder how they came to be the way they are now….
Joanna: They don’t look very happy
Mark: Why should they? They’re getting married”
Perhaps the core of what this film is about, this exchange, and variations of it, is repeated several times throughout Two For The Road, which is full of occurrences and locations which echo across time, sometimes ironically, sometimes nostalgically, sometimes sadly. All I knew about Two For The Road prior to watching it is that it was a 60’s romantic comedy starring Audrey Hepburn, not an enticing prospect for this critic, but it’s actually something far more resonant and really a rather interesting movie. Yes, there are laughs and much of it has a light and glossy escapist tone, but it’s also a very penetrating debunking of the cinematic myth that largely existed at the time of getting married resulting in “happily ever after”. Along with the very stylised way in which the story is told, the film continually shifting time zones as the two main characters make their way in various times from the North to the South of France, this is one film that feels both very much of its time but also seems rather modern, while I think pretty much anyone who has been married for some length of time will find something to relate to.
Based partly on the own experiences of writer Frederick Raphael [Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut was a very different treatment of a Raphael script also largely about marriage], this film was originally going to be a Universal production, but they changed their mind about it and so it passed to 20th Century Fox. Audrey Hepburn turned down the film after reading the treatment she was sent, not liking the somewhat avant garde style the story was told in, but changed her mind when she read the full script. She still briefly left the film because she was pregnant and was almost replaced by Julie Christie. Meanwhile Michael Caine and Paul Newman both turned down the part of Mark which went to Albert Finney. Hepburn and Finney were required to direct themselves in several sequences where they were shown inside of a moving car, pushing the camera’s buttons while director Stanley Donen rode alongside them in another car. Hepburn actually shot some nude scenes for the first time in her career but they ended up not being used, though the film still retains a bit of adult frankness [even for 1967, the word “sex” is said rather a lot]. The film was a box office success though became more of a cult movie, a film cherished by a certain few, and I can see how this would be a film which one could get a strong attachment to if it reflects your particular state of mind or life at a certain time.
Two For The Road gets off to a great start with flashy, pop-art titles by the great Maurice Binder [James Bond series] full of road signs and a travelling car, over which plays one of the loveliest themes by Henry Mancini that you will ever here, gorgeously lilting, achingly romantic and a bit sad, a piece that sums up the whole film in a few minutes. Unfortunately, the piece is played over and over again throughout the film, which is fine at first but eventually gets a little infuriating, popping up in scenes where it isn’t needed. Still, I’m getting ahead of myself, and the first ten or so minutes of Two For The Road economically show us a couple with serious problems. Joanna speaks to their daughter Caroline on the phone and, passing the phone to Mark, has to remind her husband that Caroline’s his daughter. Then, on a plane, they sit with an empty spare seat between them. Arriving in France, the film then begins to go back in time as the couple begin their drive. The flashbacks are often introduced with one or two of the main characters giving many of them introductory narration, as if the two are thinking aloud, and also, at least in some cases, the two just talking about the past [so what we are watching are shared flashbacks, an unusual thing]. The device takes time getting used to, but the film soon casts a poignantly nostalgic spell as we start watching three trips across the same terrain, but in different times, and at very different stages in the relationship of Mark and Joanna….or are they really that different?
The first journey shows how Mark and Joanna first met, get unintentionally thrown together, and end up hiking virtually penniless across Europe. Like the coolest trip you would want to do if you were young and in love, there are bits here which are wonderfully sweet and romantic, like the two sheltering from the pouring rain in a pipe and waking up being transported in the back of a lorry to the French Riviera. Bits of if reminded me of the idealistic whimsy of Before Sunrise. The second journey sees the two take a similar road trip with another couple and their daughter Ruth, who is one of the most horrid children I’ve seen in a film. She’s a bossy, arrogant thing whose absurdly complacent parents always let have her own way, such as taking a tablecloth she’s drawn on in a restaurant with her. This part of the film is the least enjoyable, but it’s there to show us who Mark and Joanna could be, and tells us that, even though they both have flaws, they’re nowhere near as bad. Then there’s the ‘present day’ section, full of bickering and bitterness. Sometimes it’s not sure clear for a moment what time zone you’re in, but then Donen, best known for his classic musicals like Singin’ In The Rain, gives us some superb transitions, some funny, like Mark saying he’ll never pass a hitchhiker and then passing one several years later in the next shot, and some just purely artful, like a red car speeding by Mark and Joanna followed by a shot of the same kind of car but now with Mark in it and a few years later. Donen’s skillful handling only really slips during two out of place speeded up sequences.
There’s a lot of humour in this film which may seem almost to not belong in the film, like the two pitching their tent in a hotel room because of mosquitoes and not seeing the great big mosquito net above their bed till the morning, or the two refusing to notice their engine is producing loads of smoke until it is too late. However, it blends in rather well with the serious stuff, which is handled with conviction and intelligence. There were times I didn’t like how Mark or Joanna behaved or what they did, but that’s clearly intentional. It’s important that they keep saying: “ I love you” during rows. Do they always mean it? The film leaves the viewer to make up his or her mind about certain things, and it’s really down to his or her experiences or view of marriage and relationships. Hepburn, somebody I tend not to warm to and certainly not in her most famous parts [I prefer her in roles like Robin And Marian], is quite marvellous in this, exuding her character’s sensitivity and spontaneity. Of course she wears lots of chic outfits including some ghastly stuff in the ‘modern’ scenes. Finney in some way has the hardest of the two main roles, his character being a bit less likeable, and he does do well in showing Mark’s youthful wackiness, self-assurance and later, blasé tiredness. However, I don’t think his performance entirely comes off, with some very odd line deliveries [when he isn’t putting on a Humphrey Bogart-style voice]. I couldn’t entirely see what Joanna sees in the often selfish Mark, but, again, that’s probably another one of the points this very astute, clever film is making.
Two For The Road finds the reality of marriage wanting, but remains sentimental about the institution, which I guess is about right if it wants to please as many people as it can. It’s sometimes bitter, but retains a warm glow. It seems to tell us that love isn’t perfect and can be a pain in the ass, but it should still be cherished. Its open ending [though it didn’t actually seem that open to me] is both positive and negative, which is just as it should be. Films of this subject tend to be emphasise either the gloomily serious or be out-and-out comedies. Two For The Road manages the perfect middle ground between the two. It sometimes comes close to being a great movie in my view, and I thoroughly recommend it, whether you decide to view it with your partner or not! Eureka Entertainment’s Blu-ray transfer seems free of things like artificial colour enhancement and excessive grain removal, resulting in a film which still looks the best it probably ever has but also looks unmistakeably of its time.
* Commentary by director Stanley Donen
* Frederic Raphael – Memories of Travelers
* Theatrical Trailer
* 36-Page liner notes booklet