Learning From The Masters Of Cinema: Stanley Donen's TWO FOR THE ROAD
Smart, stylish, insightful and brimming with technical inventiveness, Stanley Donen's Two For The Road is a wonderful examination of the modern marriage whose influence can still be felt in Hollywood cinema today, nearly 50 years after it was originally released.
Inspired in part by his own marriage, screenwriter Frederic Raphael (Darling, Eyes Wide Shut) penned Two For The Road at the specific request of director Stanley Donen (Singing In The Rain, Charade), after seeing his earlier efforts in 1964's Nothing But The Best. According to Raphael, he deliberately wrote the script in random order, accentuating its episodic structure, as it revisits the various trips from London to the South of France by the same British couple.
Mark Wallace (Albert Finney), a successful architect, and his wife Joanna (Audrey Hepburn), are on their way to the Riviera, leaving their young daughter at home. After more than a decade of marriage the strains of their relationship are immediately evident, yet there is a bristling back and forth about their banter that is both antagonistic yet also demonstrates an incredible understanding of and familiarity with each other.
It transpires that Mark and Joanna met on this very same stretch of French road, and have taken this journey numerous times over the past decade. Raphael's script leaps backwards and forwards in time, showing the audience how the young travellers came to be accidental hitchhiking partners, how they fell in love, got married, took more than one joint holiday with other couples, and even indulged in affairs, all along this same route.
Many of the film's most humorous scenes take place during a vacation with an American couple and their spoilt young daughter. Mark is open about the fact that their female companion, Cathy (Eleanor Bron) is an old flame of his, who later settled for the obsessively efficient Howey (William Daniels). It is suggested that Mark might have organised the trip to make Joanna jealous - as well as deter her from wanting children - but ultimately it proves an insufferable experience for them both.
Not once do we see what Mark and Joanna's lives are like when they are not on the road, nor are we provided with any additional information that might fill in the gaps between visits. Somewhat reminiscent of the films of Richard Linklater - especially Boyhood and the Before trilogy - we are privy only to snapshots of this family over the years, rather than the full story, albeit in a non-chronological order.
While the film never stops to explain itself to its audience, there are helpful markers along the way to orientate us as to which time period we are (re)visiting. Oftentimes this is dictated by Hepburn's hairstyle or incredible wardrobe of ultra-stylish outfits, but also thanks to the parade of fantastic vintage automobiles that Mark drives during the film.
Beyond the smart structure, Raphael's script gifts his two stars with incredible dialogue that fuels a delightfully volatile relationship between Mark and Joanna. They love each other very much, but the film repeatedly asks whether or not love is enough. Frequent use of repetition, quoting each other's lines back at each other and similar barbed exchanges provide a real crackle to proceedings that are both stylised and smack of realism for anyone who has ever been in a long-term relationship.
Elsewhere, Henry Mancini's score brings a welcome balance of upbeat and melancholy aural lubrication to this tale of rocky romance, and the composer confessed that his title track was his all-time favourite of his compositions. The super-stylised opening titles, which use simple road-side iconography to foreshadow the bumpy ride ahead, were designed by Maurice Binder, fresh off creating Bond's signature gun barrel logo.
I must confess that prior to Masters of Cinema announcing their release of Two For The Road late last year I was entirely unfamiliar with the film. Having now seen it, the influence of Donen's 1967 gem is ubiquitous throughout the decades since. Most recently, the film was clearly the template for Marc Webb's rom-com (500) Days of Summer and there is more than a passing resemblance in the loaded denouement of David Fincher's Gone Girl of how Mark and Joanna leave things in the balance as the credits roll.
Suffice to say that Two For The Road proves a very welcome addition to the Masters of Cinema series and will be an oft-revisited title in my collection. The new 1080p presentation of the film does a fantastic job of showcasing Christopher Challis' gorgeous cinematography, which in turn captures the exquisite beauty of the French countryside and the film's two gorgeous leads. Watching Finney and Hepburn strut their stuff was never going to be a chore, but their chemistry here is absolute dynamite.
This new dual-format release also features an audio commentary from director Stanley Donen, as well as a French-language video interview with screenwriter Frederic Raphael, the original trailer and a new essay from Jessica Felrice.
Two For The Road is available in the UK now in a dual-format Blu-ray/DVD edition, courtesy of Eureka Entertainment's Masters of Cinema series.
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