Shakespeare knew it and so do Hollywood executives – marriage is game over. When a couple join together in holy matrimony, it’s time for high jinks and danger to end and for everyone to sit down quietly and behave themselves – indefinitely. Miserable marriages make for tedious viewing and happy marriages are even worse. Marriages have no story arc. Once you’ve tied the knot you’re just trundling through the motions with brief periods of sulking whilst gazing hopefully forward to the sweet embrace of death. No one wants to look at that. Everyone gets enough of that at home.
But there was a time when filmmakers fancied marriage as good subject matter. Back in the silent era, marriage films were as common as they were popular. Naturally, they were always miserable marriages. In the 1920s, marriage was an inevitable tyranny of rolling pins, flying frying pans, nagging mother in-laws and demands for new dresses that every man would have to submit to. Marriage as misery was a comic trope across the globe. It also featured as the subject for many tragic melodramas. What’s interesting to note is that marriage of the 1920s either ended in death or happy resolution – whatever the problem marriage was sacrosanct, and dissolving the union was never entertained as a serious possibility.
As attitudes towards divorce liberalised, the divorce film quickly overtook the marriage film in terms of popularity. This is perhaps not to indicate a widespread resentment towards marriage as an institution, but rather filmmakers exciting themselves at the wide range of dramatic possibility that divorce offered them. Throughout the Golden Age of Hollywood filmmakers created a plethora of married couples, tossed together ad hoc purely for the purpose of getting divorced or at least considering it. One common device was to present a marriage as a series of flashbacks, documenting how it all went wrong. Another more comic device was two characters suddenly realising that they had never been legally married and considering whether they should get married properly or give up altogether. Throughout this period, marriage’s solid position as an everlasting union began to melt away, and yet it was still an institution that almost everyone expected they would enter into. The dissolution of marriage was nearly always treated as tragic, even if it was more acceptable than it had been previously.
The 1960s saw attitudes change sharply. If marriage had always been boring, it was now absurdly so and potentially malignant to boot. For the first time it was common for films challenging marriage as institution to be shown to critical and popular acclaim. Two of the most celebrated films of the decade – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt – both took marriage as their subject matter and both treated the institution as dangerously combustible and painfully dull in equal measures.
By the time the 1970s came along, marriage had never been so unpopular. Very few films were tackling the subject, and those that were took disappointment and divorce as their prevailing themes. This was the decade of The Way We Were and Kramer vs Kramer. This trend was echoed in Europe, too. For instance Swedish cinema, which had at one time been dominated by Ingrid Bergman-esque maidens seeking love and babies born in matrimony at any cost, saw the production of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes of a Marriage; five hours of contempt, casual cruelty, infidelity, deceit, humiliation, unsatisfying sex and inevitably divorce. Such was the influence of Scenes of a Marriage it was credited with single-handedly causing a spike in divorce rates across the Scandinavian countries.
In today’s post-post-modern and culturally schizophrenic cinematic climate, contemporary films covering the subject of marriage are a mixed bag. Obviously, marriage is still as boring as ever, but people are still doing it. One of the most popular methods of tackling marriage today is the wedding film, which allows all the space for marital discord and tension without the strictures and misery of divorce. Plus there’s the added bonus of an inevitable happy ending, where differences are resolved and a bride walks down the aisle.
If a film chooses to focus on an already established marriage then there has to be some kind of terrible menace involved. This might end well, with Mr and Mrs Smith showing us how a life of stilted dinner conversations can be redeemed if both partners happen to be international assassins. Alternatively, you may find yourself at the mercy of your fantastically psychopathic wife as she sets about raining waves of catastrophe on your head to secure the façade of a functioning relationship (see Gone Girl). Given our increasingly demented relationship with marriage, the superficiality of the wedding film, and the depressing connotations of the increasingly deranged relationships in standard marriage films, may continue for some time.
The only people who seem to have any enthusiasm left for marriage are gay men and women in long-term relationships. My prediction is there’ll soon be a frenzied recycling of the old formulae with gay married couples. Only now they’ll be called innovative, critical and fresh for at least five years before the critics get bored with them and remark that these are the same films Hollywood’s been pumping out since the 1920s. It’s a thought.