Features and Columns · Movies

All the Joy, Sadness, and Wisdom of the ‘Before Trilogy’ In a Single Film from 1967

By  · Published on February 20th, 2017

Missed Connections

‘Two for the Road’

The joy, sadness, and wisdom of Richard Linklater’s ‘Before Trilogy’ packed into two beautiful hours.

Welcome to Missed Connections, a weekly column where I get to highlight films that are little known and/or unfairly maligned. I’ll be shining a light in two directions – I hope to introduce you to movies you’ve never seen and possibly never heard of, and I’ll attempt to defend films that history, critical consensus, and maybe even your own memories haven’t been very kind to.

This week’s pick is a non-musical from the director of Singin’ In the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and Funny Face.

I’m probably stretching the definition of “little known” with this week’s film, but for whatever reason I’ve never really heard anyone talk about Two for the Road – whether in casual movie-chatter or as part of a list of must-see films. Maybe I just need better friends in real life and online? Stanley Donen’s film is critically acclaimed, was nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar, and features two major stars in Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney, but it’s new enough to me that I still feel it’s worthy of a spotlight here.

The film is a love story, of sorts, but even as I say that I know it’s not true. The “of sorts” part I mean – this is a love story through and through. Joanna (Hepburn) and Mark (Finney) meet in France while she tours with a female choir and he’s backpacking solo, and over the course of the next several years the pair fall in love, get married, have a daughter, cheat on each other, and wonder aloud why they’re still together.

We see it all unfold, but the film’s brilliance is in its non-linear structure. Frederic Raphael’s (Eyes Wide Shut) script moves the action from the couple’s meeting to a troubled drive late in their marriage to some fun at the beach early in their relationship. We shift forward and backward throughout the film, but while reading the script must have been difficult – it reportedly kept multiple studios from saying yes and even led to Hepburn initially saying no to the project – the film itself is effortless in the way it moves across and between the years. Actions as simple as jumping into a bed or removing a hat offer seamless transitions to a similar motion from the past or future, while the preferred shift typically comes in the passing of a car.

More than just a conversation-worthy trick, the film’s structure reveals the truth of this couple’s life together. Events happen before and after each other, but for Joanne and Mark what we see as past and future is actually all their present. They carry all of this with them always – their first kiss, their cruel fights, the joy of sex, the longing they feel when apart, the emptiness that leads to infidelity – they’re all parts of the whole, and the film captures the essence of that idea with a painful perfection. We see promises of love after we’ve seen those promises broken, but unlike films like Irreversible or Memento that move (mostly) in reverse the back and forth here offers continued delights and downturns.

We never experience the couple at home as the film’s entirety consists of their time spent in France on vacations over the years, and the time-hopping structure means we sometimes see the same places through the lens of different stages of their relationship and circumstance. One minute Mark’s swearing on the side of the road that when they have a car he’ll be sure to pick up hitchhikers – quick cut to a car driving past a couple in the same spot, and in the car? Mark and Joanna some years later.

Two For The Road (Blu-ray)

Clever moments fill the film in the form of these transitions, fun visuals, and smart banter, but there’s pain here too. One sequence has Mark narrating a letter to his wife while he’s away on business, but while his lovely words reach our ears we watch him driving, flirting, and eventually cheating with another woman. The contrast is devastating, and the flip side is every bit as affecting when Joanna steps out on him too. Her betrayal has more meaning though, and the pair’s reconciliation is absolutely heartbreaking in the clarity of hurt on display.

“What kind of people just sit like that without a word to say to each other?” asks Mark early on after spying a silent couple in a restaurant. “Married people?” replies Joanna, and while the exchange is revisited later on with a darker tone the idea becomes the core here. Is a couple’s silence a death knell for their love? Or is it inevitable after years together? Or does it even have to be one or the other? Marriage is as different as it is the same between couples, and there’s no one right way to do it.

Hepburn and Finney are both at the height of their powers here – she was already a well-established star by this point while he was only five films into his career – and their chemistry together is undeniable. Small moments and expressions convince us as to their love just as they do the bitterness growing between them in later years. Their fights feel real and lived in, and the love beneath the scars is equally visible.

There’s a definite through line to Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, and as someone who sees the first two films as modern classics I believe Donen’s movie is every bit as magical in a third of the running time. They display superficial similarities in the beautiful European locales, but there’s a shared genius to the way the films illustrate a lifetime of emotion in brief exchanges and briefer glances. Linklater does it across three days and nights, while Donen reveals it in briefer scenes across many more, and both do so through paired characters who feel connected in their absolute love.

The argument can be made that Two for the Road is about the triumph of marriage and love, but you can just as easily call it a tragic romance. The viewer’s perspective and own personal baggage will unavoidably color their own experience, but that’s yet another hallmark of a great film – one that tells its own story while still allowing varied interpretations from those who see it.

We lead linear lives, but the beats we experience, the good times and bad (and mundane), all share space within our hearts and memories. Two for the Road understands this, and while its story unfurls with big stars, gorgeous European locales, and a detached sense of time, it remains a film that feels intimately personal to the viewer. I see some of my own moments in this film, and if you’ve been in love I guarantee you will too.

Read more entries in last year’s The Essentials, and follow along every Monday with Missed Connections — my appreciations of movies that failed to find an audience for one reason or another.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.