Two for the Road: Masters of Cinema Review


Sitting in a car, paused by a church, Joanna Wallace (Audrey Hepburn) says of the bride and groom, “They don't look very happy.” Her husband, Mark (Albert Finney), a successful architect, says, “Why should they? They've just got married.” It's an anti-romantic sideswipe – mirrored by the final lines, which I'll leave you to hear for yourself - in a film which is a romance, and a comedy, as well as a drama. Over the next hour and fifty minutes, we flash back and forth over the two years of Joanna and Mark's relationship, from youthful exuberance to middle-aged responsibilities, which include a daughter, and a cooling of love.

Stanley Donen, still alive at age ninety as I write this, began on stage as a dancer and choreographer, and, through his association with Gene Kelly, became one of the cinema's great directors of musicals: On the Town, Singin' in the Rain and It's Always Fair Weather, all co-directed with Kelly, and the solo-directed Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. With the decline of the musical genre, Donen diversified into comedy and Hitchcockian suspense such as Charade (which also starred Audrey Hepburn). There's certainly plenty of comedy in Two from the Road, such as pretty much the entire sequence of a car journey Joanna and Mark share with an American couple (played by Eleanor Bron and William Daniels) and one of the screen's ultimate spoiled brats, their daughter (Gabrielle Middleton, in her only screen role), a sequence which plays as a rather broad satire of “progressive” parenting. There's pathos too, and a clear-eyed look at the lead characters' faults: he has his infidelities on business trips and she moves into an affair with David (Georges Descrières). One of the most impressive things about this film is its command of tone, and shifts of tone, and that's as much due to Frederic Raphael's script as Donen's direction, not forgetting the input of the cast.

In 1966, when Two for the Road was shot, the influence of the French New Wave was making itself felt in mainstream commercial cinema, in ways that have largely vanished from it now. While the audience for the New Wave films itself was relatively small, they being in a foreign language and subtitled after all, certainly film directors were watching and taking note. There are quite a few New Waveisms in Two for the Road, and not just a couple of scenes using speeded-up motion. Take a look at the scene where Mark realises that Joanna and David are having an affair. Donen films it as a crash-zoom and freeze-frame, and it's like a punch in the stomach (and was in Raphael's script). However, a more profound influence on the script and the film was the antichronological narration, going further than simply clearly-marked flashbacks, associated with Alain Resnais, particularly in Muriel. Raphael, Donen, and editors Madeleine Gug and Richard Marden cut back and forth between something like five timelines, often cutting between different scenes in the same location at different times, as much through free association as any form of chronology. Changes in Hepburn's hairstyle help place us. It's not easy on a first viewing to date every scene precisely in its place in Joanna and Mark's relationship (about the only date on screen is a car tax disc which says NOV 1963) but it doesn't really matter that much. The film is saying that we are our memories, and they are as much our present as the actual present which becomes itself memory second by second. This style found its way into crime thrillers (Point Blank and, much later, The Limey) and another relationship drama, Petulia, directed by Richard Lester, another New Wave devotee. This kind of antichronological structure became a feature of the films of that film's cinematographer, Nicolas Roeg, who in 1980 made his own relationship drama which treated time like tossed salad, Bad Timing, a film which is much darker than Two for the Road, certainly not romantic and not funny at all. Such time-jumping has disappeared largely from commercial cinema, occasional examples like 21 Grams and Last Orders notwithstanding. Using a current film as an example, see how the three timelines in The Imitation Game are very clearly signposted for the viewer.

Two for the Road was an original script by Frederic Raphael, born in the USA but emigrated to the UK at the age of seven. Beginning as a novelist, he had come to Donen's attention for his first screenplay, Nothing But the Best in 1964. After that, he had won an Oscar for Darling the following year. After failing to find existing stories to adapt, the inspiration for Two for the Road was the fact that Raphael, very much a Francophile, had repeatedly gone to the same places in France with his wife during their marriage. As well as the innovative structure, his dialogue is a highlight of this film, which is replete with quotable lines. Clearly relationships, including marriage, between men and women is a key film in his work, which is visible in his TV serials The Glittering Prizes (1976, and recently released on DVD) and Oxbridge Blues (1979) and not at all forgetting his co-written script for Stanley Kubrick's final film Eyes Wide Shut. Two from the Road was made at a time when taboos were being broken and barriers coming down in society as well as in cinema, and it's fascinating to see the way that Raphael can write an adult film about human relationships, but still keep the sexual references and mild language within the bounds of a then A certificate (a PG now). Mark's repeated habit of mislaying things, which drives the plot of the film, was something Raphael himself was prone to.

Audrey Hepburn was thirty-seven when this film was made, seven years older than Finney, but both age convincingly from just-out-of-youth to middle age. Hepburn was still in the height of her allure as one of the screen's great gamines, and she plays very well against Finney, himself a sex symbol due to his work in Tom Jones especially. Neither of them are unafraid to send themselves up at time, and to reveal their characters' flaws and frailties (his male insensitivity to her, for example) and they're a delight to spend time with. Eleanor Bron was mostly associated with television comedy but she and William Daniels do a fine job in what amounts to the film's comic relief in its first half. (An Englishwoman playing an American, Bron wanted to know where in the USA her character came from, as she was able to mimic something like ten different American accents.) Further down the cast list you will see Jacqueline Bisset in an early role, as one of the younger Joanna's girl friends. Technically the film is accomplished, with Christopher Challis's Scope camerawork making the most of the locations: none of the film was shot in a studio. The animated opening credits, with road signs going past, are the work of Maurice Binder in between Bond film gigs. I did find Henry Mancini's music score a little saccharine - though I appear to be in minority – plenty of people think it's one of his best scores. It does betray the film's era: you can imagine the soundtrack featuring contemporary pop and rock music if it had been made only a couple of years later.

Two for the Road was well-received on its release. Hepburn and Mancini were Golden Globe-nominated, but the film's only Oscar and BAFTA nominations were for Raphael's screenplay. (Hepburn lost out because she was competing with her own performance in Wait Until Dark, which did get Oscar-nominated.) The film clearly struck a chord with audiences who saw aspects of their own marriages and relationships reflected in it. It soon picked up a cult following and was indeed one of the hundred films included by Danny Peary in his 1981 book Cult Movies, though it was the one essay in that book written by his guest contributor Henry Blinder. That was the first time I became aware of it, though chances to see the film, especially in its original aspect ratio, have not been thick on the ground. It had BBC TV showings in 1974 and 1977 (both past my bedtime) and a VHS release in 1990, but I very much doubt those were anything other than panned and scanned. So kudos to Eureka for releasing it in their Masters of Cinema series. I'm fifty now and where has this film been all my life? I loved it.


The Disc

Eureka release Two for the Road in their Masters of Cinema line as a dual-format release. The Blu-ray version was supplied for review, as a checkdisc. Given that this is licensed from a major studio (20th Century Fox) it's no surprise that the disc is Region B only. The DVD edition was not supplied for review but it's a racing certainly that it's Region 2 only and, given the distributor, not unlikely to be NTSC rather than PAL.

Two for the Road was shot in Scope, with anamorphic lenses from Panavision, and the Blu-ray transfer is in the correct ratio of 2.35:1. You can often tell a decade when a film was made from the way the colour looks, and Christopher Challis makes the film look very much like other films from the later 1960s: colours pop (showing off Hepburn's wardrobe in particular) and skin tones tend a little towards orange, a palette that is rather heightened compared to many films from later decades. I'm in no doubt that this is how the film is meant to look, and the picture is sharp and the grain is natural and filmlike.

The soundtrack is the original mono, in LPCM 2.0, and sounds clear and well-balanced, particularly benefiting Mancini's score. As Donen explains in the commentary, none of this film was shot in a studio, and the car scenes really were filmed in moving cars. This mean that a large part of the film had to be postdubbed due to camera and generator noise on set, and as a result lipsynch does wander a bit in several scenes, especially exteriors. This is an English-language film with some brief lines in French going intentionally untranslated – you can get the gist of them anyway quite easily even if you don't speak a word of the language. English subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing and the only slip-up I spotted was their referring to the music in the party scene at the end anachronistically as "disco".

As mentioned, there is a commentary track, which is carried over from an earlier Region 1 DVD edition. (Masters of Cinema's edition is the first on disc for this film in the UK.) A male voice gives a brief rundown of Stanley Donen's career at the start, then it's Donen solo for the rest of the film. What he says is very informative, but he doesn't have enough to say to cover the whole hour and fifty-one minutes and there are long gaps. This might have been better as an interview or selected-scene commentary but even so it's well worth listening to.

Next up is "Souvenirs de voyage(s)" (25:34) or "Memories of Travel(s)" as the subtitle puts it. It's an interview from 2005 with Frederic Raphael (contained in a tiny letterbox in the middle of the 4:3 frame) talking to camera in French, with subtitles provided. From time to time the full screen is taken up with film extracts or parts of Binder's title sequence with onscreen text. Again, very useful even if it does overlap with information available elsewhere.

The final on-disc extra is the trailer (2:15).

Masters of Cinema's booklet runs to thirty-two pages and is mostly taken up by a new essay, "Signs on the Road Ahead (and Behind)" by Jessica Felrice. This brings up some points that may pass viewers by on a first viewing, such as the intentional contrast between Hepburn's clothes, all primary colours (and all bought off the peg, rather than being supplied by a coutourier, as often as not Givenchy, as had been the case with most of her films to date) and the more muted shades worn by Finney. Felrice also brings up something I hadn't been aware of: that Jacques Rivette was an admirer of this film and used it as an inspiration for his own Céline and Julie Go Boating. It's an excellent essay, but do read it after seeing the film.

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