The End of Marriage 

A review of "The Story of Us, Romance," and" 'Til Death Do Us Part"

The Story of Us (R)

*Romance (Not rated)

*'Til Death Do Us Part (Not rated)

Call it coincidence, but in one 48-hour period last weekend, I watched three films playing on the same irritable theme that self-help author John Gray phrased best: Men are from Mars, women are from Venus.

Will the end of the 20th century go down in history as the end of marriage? Discussions are popping up all over, in spite of the country's family-values leanings, about the improbability of making it work in a way that is lasting or fulfilling for either husband or wife. Do our genes doom us to fail at monogamy? Has the liberation of women from the kitchen and the station wagon rung a death knell for wedded bliss?

A central theme in these discussions is all too familiar -- what women and men want, and what makes them happy in a relationship, are about as different as professional wrestling and a bake sale. The theme is repeated in spades on prime-time television series (Once and Again), in books like the one mentioned above and, now, at the movies.

Don't bother to thank Rob Reiner for his entry into the discussion, the insipid and smug The Story of Us. Reiner's ideas about the inherent problems of marriage boil down to two spoiled brats not getting their way. Bruce Willis stars as bratty husband Ben, and Michelle Pfeiffer is his uptight, even-brattier wife Katie. Together in their perfect house with their two perfect children and even more perfect, high-yielding but leisurely careers, Ben and Katie fume and whine over who is getting the least attention, who is being denied sex and who has to take out the trash. Reiner shoots for realism and reaches the lowest common denominator -- choosing to emphasize those embarrassing moments anyone who has been married can relate to, but would just as soon forget. Willis provides a sullen, wooden narrative voiceover, and Pfeiffer does some of her best pouting and sniveling since her last tear fest, The Deep End of the Ocean. Will someone please give this lovely, capable actress a part with some pep?

The Story of Us asks us to endure the incessant bitching of Ben and Katie, then to accept their superficial making-up scene at the end, and accents it all with borderline offensive scenes featuring their rich, self-absorbed friends (Reiner, a shrill Rita Wilson, Paul Reiser) who love to co-titillate with tits-and-ass references. Only once does anyone approach one of the central dilemmas of the man-woman sexual conundrum, and then it is tossed off by Wilson as just another clever witticism: "A man can mend a fight with sex; a woman can't have sex until they've made up." Had they bothered to actually explore a theme like that one, they might have made a movie.

Which leads us to Romance, a mind-blower of a movie by French director Catherine Breill. Though I have not seen any other of Breill's films, I know she acted in Last Tango in Paris, which tells me something about her. Romance affected me, at 45, much the way Last Tango did when I was 19 -- shocking in its sexual explicitness and unabashed in its approach to the chasm between men and women, it sends you home thinking, and sodden with images you can't shake.

Film Comment magazine called Romance "the most sexually explicit mainstream movie ever made," and that much is true. But Romance is not pornographic -- it is not designed to seduce or arouse, but to provoke questions.

Caroline Ducey is Marie, a young woman married to Paul (Sagamore Stevenin), a male model who won't make love to her and falls asleep each night in his underwear, watching television. Increasingly frustrated, Marie takes to the Paris streets, embarking on a string of sexual adventures, including an extended relationship with a guy who loves to tie her up. Eventually, Marie is impregnated (ironically, by Paul in a scene that reeks with brutal truth) and, in the end, is liberated from her marriage and her obsession with getting laid.

Decidedly feminist in its approach, Romance is an unorthodox take on female liberation -- gutsy and extreme. Marie is one of the first completely honest female characters ever depicted in a film about relationships, and we are forced to see the journey through her eyes and thoughts. "Romance is about female desire, not male fantasy," said Breill in an interview, and that is what is most refreshing and diverting about the film. "Love between men and women," says Marie, "is a devious conflict." In Romance, we are asked to see the conflict through a sexually frustrated woman's eyes -- a rare occasion in cinema.

Falling into a category uniquely its own, Cindy Kleine's 'Til Death Do Us Part, showing this weekend at the Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival, delves into the man-woman divide with unblinking eyes. Kleine, a documentary filmmaker, filmed her parents who have been married for 55 years, asking each of them to talk about their relationship, sex and all.

Bouncing back and forth from Mom to Dad, Kleine's inquiry quickly reveals that for most of their 55 years together, Mom has been on Mars while Dad has been in another solar system. As she reveals her excruciating unhappiness and her habitual infidelity, he describes how hunky-dory it has been for as long as he can remember. Kleine captures the tension with deceptively simple technique, shocking the viewer all the more because it's her parents who are revealing this to her, and at the same time to us. I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry at the end of 'Til Death Do Us Part, but I was made plenty uncomfortable by the startling revelations it made, and was intrigued by the spin it gives to the notion of documentary, asking where truth lies.


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