Audrey and Albert Share Swingin’ Memories of a Marriage

In 1967, a Time magazine cover story trumpeted “The Shock of Freedom in Films,” praising Hollywood’s belated embrace of the French New Wave. The article mostly paid enormous respects to Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, but passing mention was made of how Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, John Boorman’s Point Blank and Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road enjoyed “a heady new freedom from formula, convention, and censorship.”

While the others in that list are recognized classics, Two for the Road (out this week from Fox Home Entertainment) has generally been regarded as a lightweight charmer. On the surface, it is the stuff of traditional drama: The 10-year marriage of Mark (Albert Finney) and Joanna (Audrey Hepburn) Wallace is recalled, in flashbacks of the couple’s past trips through the French countryside. Mark is an architect, and his chief patron has summoned him to finalize a house; this miserable present-day work trip (Joanna has accompanied him) serves as the film’s through-line conflict. Is their marriage over? This voyage also acts as a springboard for associative digressions into memories of their first meeting, of their lean newlywed years, of their nightmarish double-date vacation with another couple. The Time article, while praising the “juggling of chronology,” dismissed it as “otherwise an ordinary Audrey Hepburn vehicle.”

Two for the Road is absolutely defined by its chronological structure, in which the vignettes of a lifetime alternate at an increasingly rapid rate, each memory informing all subsequent ones. A characteristic sequence: The just-met couple looks through a café window and sees a husband and wife arguing. Unable to hear the argument, they amuse themselves by guessing the source of conflict. We hear Mark’s voice, then Joanna’s voice, synched to the older couple’s gesticulating, as though they’re putting words in their mouths. And then we realize that they’re no longer pretending—the camera returns to Mark and Joanna, years later, having their own fight. As they walk out of view, a red sports car passes and then roars into the next scene—this time driven by Mark, on his way to a tryst years later. A love letter to Joanna is read over the scene of the tryst, and as he begins his solo trip home, the letter concludes, and Joanna and their young daughter Caroline are suddenly in the car. Joanna offers Mark some of Caroline’s ice cream; he refuses. Then the couple is walking together, Joanna feeding Mark an ice-cream cone, on their first trip. It’s a heartbreaking fugue in which experience corrupts innocence in all of three minutes.

Of course, this wasn’t the first film to investigate the way memory haunts lovers. The works of Alain Resnais ( Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad) are perhaps the most famously anamnestic in cinema, but Two for the Road had a close precedent, Claude Lelouch’s 1966 A Man and a Woman, in which a couple’s budding romance is interlaced with each lover’s recollections of their late spouses.

A Man and a Woman made $6 million in the U.S., won two Oscars, and paved the way for Two for the Road (it may not be a coincidence that veteran French editor Madeleine Gug was brought on board to cut the film). Screenwriter Frederic Raphael approached Donen after John Schlesinger had deemed the idea “too difficult”; it’s hard to imagine another filmmaker making the material as accessible as Donen does. He tempers the caustic script with beautiful photography and a charmingly melancholy Henry Mancini score. Even as he plays with jump cuts and mid-zoom freeze frames, Donen does his part to normalize the experience. Whereas Resnais’ jumbles disorient the viewer, Two for the Road carefully coaxes us into its rhythms—slowly at first, eventually mixing time frames for only seconds at a time.

As a map, we’re given Audrey Hepburn’s varying hairstyles and costumes, and year-specific automobiles. Those cars are temporal clues, but in a movie that never shows the characters’ homes, they’re also the sets—and part of a trend that escaped Time’s notice. In the same year that Jean-Luc Godard’s camera spent 10 minutes tracking toward the gruesome source of a French traffic jam in Weekend, several Hollywood films revealed the centrality of the automobile within modern life, as each cinematic set-piece seemed to come assigned with its own memorable make and model: Dustin Hoffman escorting Mrs. Robinson home in an Alfa Romeo Duetto ( The Graduate); Lee Marvin’s ecstatically destructive test drive of a Chrysler Imperial ( Point Blank); and Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway’s elongated demise in a Ford 730 V8 Deluxe Sedan ( Bonnie and Clyde).

Upping the ante, Two for the Road makes the cars subtle thematic signposts. Mark and Joanna start out with the spontaneity of a green MG TD, are held prisoner by another couple’s staid Ford station wagon, and cruise luxuriantly but solemnly in a white Mercedes 230. (The red sports car that Mark drives to his extramarital conquest is, of course, a Triumph.)

In the end, a vehicle is just a vehicle—except when it’s an Audrey Hepburn vehicle. She swears, bares skin and generally loosens up more than we’re used to, and if there remains what Henry Mancini called “Audrey’s quality of wistfulness—a kind of slight sadness,” her persevering Joanna ameliorates the sullenness of Mr. Finney’s Mark. The warmth between Hepburn and Mr. Finney keeps the bantering couple from becoming a mere symbol of crabby matrimony.

Their repartee is in the DNA of both their arguments and their romance, from flirtatiously antagonistic courtship to tin-anniversary cruelty, blurring that thin line between love and hate. After repeated viewings, the audience shares with them a persistence of memory that bleeds between and informs abutting time frames; as with memory, there is no longer a neat lineage of events. If the older couple keeps intruding on the younger couple—in passing cars, at the café window—it’s the romance of the younger that sustains the older. The film is not, as it seems at first, a post-mortem determining of how things went wrong, but simply a flood of memories every bit as confusing as true, exhausted love.