What Marriage Means

Two for the Road (1967)

Directed by Stanley Donen

Starring Audrey Hepburn as Joanna Wallace and Albert Finney as Mark Wallace

I remember seeing Two for the Road before I was 12, and that cannot be right. I was probably 15. I was delighted by the editing—how it jumped back and forth between the five different time periods, from scene to scene and back again. It was like nothing I had seen before, and it made perfect sense to me. And the dialogue was witty to the point of casual cruelty. It was familiar to me because there was a premium on sharp elbows at dinner table conversation in my family. As the boys became old enough to be no longer seen and not heard, we entered conversations by jousting our way in. Later on in life, a woman I was dating asked how we could be so mean to each other. We had learned it early, and it stuck.

More than anything else this one struck deep because of Audrey Hepburn’s performance. She was 37 when this movie came out, an she played a character who ages from about 20 to 30. Finney is meant to be older than her and was 7 years her junior. Besides the simple matter of years, her transformation is the more amazing of the two. She is both more hopeful and more sad over the course of her character’s aging. Finney remains more static, which is one facet of his masculine character.

A note here: I had crushes on a number of actresses when I was younger. I was unable to distinguish between the characters and the people playing the characters. And I only knew the actresses from a limited number of roles. I had no idea that Catherine Deneuve starred in a number of French films, many of which were far from chaste. I had seen none of Audrey Hepburn’s early work (Roman Holiday, Sabrina). There was simply no way to track down the movies. And besides small notices in Time Magazine, I knew nothing of their lives. I watched according to what was on television, and developed infatuations at the whims of unseen programmers.

At the beginning of Two for the Road the Wallaces, now ten years into their marriage, drive past a bride and groom in a car after their wedding ceremony. “They don’t look very happy,” Joanna remarks. “Why should they? They just got married,” Mark answers. The movie dances through their relationship, specifically tracing a series of five car trips through the French countryside as they travel from the north to the south of France. Their banter is breezy, charming, sarcastic, and bitter, building to crescendos of “I love you” before tumbling back into doubt and resentment. Marriage seems like an unresolvable puzzle, especially to Mark, and toward the end of the movie he asks Joanna, “What can’t I accept?” She answers, “That we’re a fixture. That we’re married.”

Hepburn glows when she looks lovingly at Finney. This must be the look every man wishes to receive from the woman he loves. She captures the look at several stages of the development of Joanna’s feelings toward Mark: from naive hopefulness through the first trembling of doubt, to disdainful resignation, and finally to generous acceptance. Did I understand the complexity of her feelings? Not at all, but I recognized the continuity, and as much as the look, how could a man not want to be loved through all his difficulty.

Growing up, I had no idea how relationships worked. My parents’ marriage was simply a fact and a mystery to me. I learned little about love and romance watching them. Nor were we close to my aunts and uncles and their families or the families in our neighborhood. I could not gauge how families were happy or unhappy. And this was never discussed at home. The only thing I knew was me, and I knew, and was told, that I was difficult. I may not have possessed Mark’s arrogance, but I understood early on that men in particular acted one way and felt another, and that to display doubt was nearly unforgivable. Or so I felt taught, and so I acted. I knew I harbored secret flaws—or not such secret flaws—and there was only one person who was going to love me in spite of them, and maybe even because of them.

At the end of the movie, Joanna tells Mark, “But at least you’re not a bad tempered, disorganized, conceited failure any more. You’re a bad tempered, disorganized, conceited success.” He isn’t angry or upset by her comment. He knows it, and ten years into their relationship, he is happy not to keep his secret from her. She is willing, even happy, to keep it with him.

I wonder now how the movie would play if the roles were reversed, if Joanna had been the arrogant architect, and Mark had been the more steady presence. I wonder what less traditional role I may have played had I seen that possibility earlier in life. But as Joanna tells Mark as he asks her his “What if” questions, she answers “I don’t know.” She has learned to live with the uncertainty. I know I have to accept what I am, which is something I struggled with as a teenager, then as an adult. I have begun to accept the uncertainty. And some of the flaws. And I have stopped expecting one person, even one person like Audrey Hepburn, to keep that secret.