By Ray Pride
The four friends in “Married Life,” Ira Sachs’ mix of drama, dark comedy and a couple of scenes of genial whimsy, are lucid about some things but reserved about others.
In an unnamed city in 1949, Harry (Chris Cooper) is a businessman hidden behind large horn rims; long-married to his wife Pat (Patricia Clarkson), he becomes convinced that the only way his wife can be happy is that he not confess his affair with younger, blonder Kay (Rachel McAdams) but instead murder Pat to put her mind at ease. Our narrator-observer-interloper is Richard (ever-cheeky Pierce Brosnan). Harry and Pat still don’t agree about what constitutes love, and she speaks more like a John O’Hara character than a potential noir victim: “If you don’t want the truth, you shouldn’t ask me.” There is a post-war sense of an acceptance of death that never becomes grim, yet aside from the manners and period furnishings, there is a sense of “now” to “Married Life.”
“Once we decided it was 1949 and we create a world which was 1949, then we didn’t have to talk about it,” Sachs tells me. This film, unlike say, Todd Haynes’ “Far from Heaven,” has fewer immediately apparent references to past films. (Coincidentally, “Married Life” and Haynes’ “I’m Not There” were co-written by Oren Moverman.) “Yes, yes. There’s none of that. Literally, once you’ve built the house these people live in, there’s no need to talk about it being the past. It’s Patricia Clarkson’s character, it’s Chris Cooper’s character, and they’re in a marriage. That’s something they could pull from the present tense. I don’t look at this kind of story as old-fashioned. It was a very direct approach, there was no post-modern thinking.”
Cooper works with such reserve, you wonder if Harry’s inner life will ever spill out, to the point of, say, Joseph Cotton’s Uncle Charlie in “Shadow of a Doubt” loosing his misanthropic “merry widow” speech. “I think a lot of acting, a lot of life and a lot of acting, is what isn’t expressed,” Sachs says. “Rachel and Chris have that in common, the sense that there’s something really held back, more so in this movie than Patricia and Pierce. [The fact that] something is held back creates the tension of every scene, that what is not expressed, and yet you feel what’s right under the surface. That’s what propels the internal drama of the story. It’s on the surface, it’s in the image, because of [Chris], in a lot of ways. There’s so much he creates just under the surface. Chris would always say to me, ‘You’re not seeing my eyes. You’re not seeing my eyes. If I said, ‘I need more,’ he’d say, ‘You’re not seeing my eyes.’ And it’s so true. So much is being done with so little.”
I ask Cooper to elaborate. “This is from previous experiences where I’ve worked with directors who spent their time in front of the video monitor. And they’re asking for more, more, more, more, more. This has happened so many times where I have to anticipate now when I’ll hear that. I heard it… Run off the number of films. This happened on ‘Seabiscuit’ the first day of filming. Gary [Ross]’s saying, ‘Y’know, I want to see a little more. ‘I said, please just go see the dailies on a big screen and he came back the next day and he apologized he said, ‘Just tell me to shut the fuck up.’ A very nice way of saying, you’re giving me more than enough. You’re giving me more than I needed, I didn’t see it in that monitor. It’s just something I’ve been made aware of.”
There is some irony, however, in the self-amused narration by Harry. He seems to know several kinds of “truth.” “I think you try to invest each scene with a question,” Sachs says. “That’s the same in ’40 Shades of Blue’ or this movie, where it’s more external what the questions are. But I wanted to go back to the idea of this not being a film full of quotes. Peter Bogdanovich said there’s no such thing as old films, there’s only good films and bad films. What I would say is that this kind of story is as present, as present tense, the story, the time, the structure is present tense because this kind of tale is part of our imagination because of a hundred years of filmmaking.”
“Married Life” opens Friday at Pipers, Renaissance and Cine Arts.