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Happy never after? The enduring appeal of the messy marriage movie

The Guardian logo The Guardian 14/02/2020 Charles Bramesco

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 12: Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell attend the premiere of "Downhill" at SVA Theater on February 12, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Dominik Bindl/WireImage) © Getty NEW YORK, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 12: Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell attend the premiere of "Downhill" at SVA Theater on February 12, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Dominik Bindl/WireImage) Q: When is a comedy about romance not a romantic comedy? A: When it focuses on a married couple.

American audiences can find a case in point this weekend with Downhill, a Hollywoodized remake of the Swedish masterwork Force Majeure, both of which join a nuclear family headed for meltdown. They share an inciting incident that sees the paterfamilias (Will Ferrell, in the newer version) abandoning his wife (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and children during what appears to be an avalanche, while he grabs his phone and runs for cover. This “every man for himself” reaction leads to a series of awkward, painful confrontations between the spouses once it’s clear that the “avalanche” was a controlled test and everybody’s safe.

The film and its European predecessor both belong under the umbrella of the marriage film, a miniature genre distinct from the romance film and yet centrally oriented around the idea of romance. Where the classic Hollywood love story comforts and consoles, the marriage film aims to disquiet. The romance picture inspires swoons; the marriage film inspires stomachaches. In marriage films, the action unfolds along lines inverse to those of the common romcom; where romance films focus on two people overcoming some complicating circumstance to come together, marriage films take that togetherness as the complicating factor. No matter the outcome, the result confers more difficult and mature insights about how people learn and unlearn to coexist once the wedding bells stop ringing.

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One quintessential example of the genre got plenty of play at the Academy awards just last weekend. Starting from the title, Marriage Story announces itself as the definitive take on matrimony and its struggles, taking the dissolution of one couple’s union as its jumping-off point. Within the schematic of a divorce that gets nastier and nastier the longer it goes on, the film finds a satisfying arc that nonetheless guides both characters towards emotional actualization. Though relations between playwright Charlie (Adam Driver) and actor Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) get increasingly acrimonious as they argue about custody of their son, they each inch closer to a more fulfilling life. She takes command of herself sexually and creatively, while he learns self-sufficiency and self-awareness. By growing apart, they can grow separately.

That film’s spiritual ancestor, the 1979 best picture winner Kramer vs Kramer, first crystallized the idea that crisis in a marriage can be productive, even nourishing. As a wife rebelling against the expectations placed on her, Meryl Streep comes to grips with the second-wave feminist realization that she’d rather be her own woman than be a mother, while suddenly single father Dustin Hoffman learns to take responsibility as a parent. In every instance, the marriage film fits the therapeutic, cathartic feel of great drama to a love that’s fraying, or completely undone.

VENICE, ITALY - AUGUST 29: (L-R) Actress Laura Dern, US actor Adam Driver and US actress Scarlett Johansson attend "Marriage Story" photocall during the 76th Venice Film Festival at Sala Grande on August 29, 2019 in Venice, Italy. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images) © Getty VENICE, ITALY - AUGUST 29: (L-R) Actress Laura Dern, US actor Adam Driver and US actress Scarlett Johansson attend "Marriage Story" photocall during the 76th Venice Film Festival at Sala Grande on August 29, 2019 in Venice, Italy. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images) Even when the final outcome allows the main pair to remain together, the marriage film still regards the bonds of monogamy as an antagonistic force. Something as innocuous as Date Night, the forgettable 2010 vehicle for Steve Carell and Tina Fey, contends with the tedium of middle-aged cohabitation as much as it does the gun-toting killers hot on the milquetoast suburbanites’ tails. They chafe under the unsexiness of routine and the expected, until a dose of surprise brings them back together and makes them newly appreciative of what they’ve got. Albeit in the mildest possible sense, the stakes of their story and their marriage are existential.

More extreme inflections have thrown a darker slant on a similar concept; screaming matches along the lines of Revolutionary Road, Blue Valentine and even Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf all examine the little ways in which our closest loved ones can put us through an intimately excruciating hell. In all three cases, the dueling leads feel trapped in their own lives, their discontent spreading like a virus that will eventually kill them or make them stronger. Whether through the death of a fictional child, a real one, or just the concession that it’s time to call it quits, each film shakes both parties out of their stagnating misery with conflict.

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 12:  Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus pose for a photo during SiriusXM's Town Hall with the cast of 'Downhill' hosted by Andy Cohen on February 12, 2020 in New York City.  (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SiriusXM) © Getty NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 12: Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus pose for a photo during SiriusXM's Town Hall with the cast of 'Downhill' hosted by Andy Cohen on February 12, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SiriusXM) Even the most despairing marriage films – and the genre’s bleakest suggestion is that some small measure of despair cannot be avoided when spending your life with another person – function as a corrective towards a better status quo. Force Majeure and Downhill, after all, both end with the father putting his stubborn masculinity to the side and stepping up by looking out for his family’s safety. The romance film ends by presuming a happily ever after, but the marriage film takes the sobering stance that only once the honeymoon ends can the real effortful work of remaining in love begin. Whatever happiness it might earn, however, will be a hard-won, substantive happiness. This is not the stuff of swelling violins and soft-focus kisses, and showbiz artifice. It’s less seductive, but the unending work of recalibrating, reworking and renegotiating lands much closer to reality than anything else at the cineplex.

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