As is my wont when I am stressed out, I run away into another landscape unfamiliar to my own.
In other words, I watch movies, especially on TCM if I can find a real classic or any other channel where escapism from what is going on around me can be found.
Last night at 2 a.m. it was re-watching Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Tonight it was Charles Boyer in a French, sub-titled period piece called “The Earrings of Madame de.” I had neither heard of nor seen the latter before, but Ben Mankiewicz assured me in his pre-movie set-up that the director of this 1953 period drama was considered the greatest European director of the time – and that the director of this year’s Oscar nominated “Phantom Thread” with Daniel Day-Lewis was a big fan of the French director whose name was obscure to me – I had to give it a go.
(While I love movies, I am not a film buff in the sense of knowing all the production details; it is the stories and the characters that draw me.)
Albee’s story, of course, is raw and rough. The husband and wife played by Burton and Taylor are mean, spiteful to one another, demeaning of others, physically abusive and only come alive with alcohol coursing in their veins.
The Boyer movie was all perfectly groomed manners and 19th century French ball rooms, with discrete flirtations and seductions, and pretended civilized discourse between spouses.
What connected the movies was that in both cases, what was happening on the surface of the marriages was not what lay at the heart of them. There were deeper secrets there that the spouses could not name aloud but played their way into a final confrontation with them through gamesmanship and multiple layers of lies woven into stories that were told to themselves and others.
It is watching the games play out and waiting for their revelation that is fascinating. In the case of Albee’s work, the end of the lies brings the husband and wife to a new reality of their marriage. We are left to wonder if they will cope with it any better than they have with the elaborately concocted lie of it they lived for so long.
In the Boyer movie, the diamond earrings that are the centerpiece of the drama – being sold and re-bought many times over by Madame de ‘s husband – end up on a literal altar as the final gift of a woman whose heart gives out when reality is forced on her. One is left to wonder if Boyer’s General re-bought the earrings for a fourth and final time, when he had said “no more” after the third.
Why we all have so much trouble with the truth is a universal issue. We look for its pure core like we look for the North Star to guide us. Except there are so many stars in the sky, I am never sure which one it is. So then I turn within and try to be still and listen for God’s voice. Too often there is only silence.
Since human history – in Biblical terms – started with lies of a husband and wife in the Garden of Eden, that this continues to be the topic of movie themes shouldn’t surprise. The lies we tell ourselves are as old as time. The truth we seek much more elusive.