Warning: Spoilers for Gone Girl (book and film)
Boy kisses girl. Fade out. Throughout the canon of classic Hollywood to today’s rom-coms, the beginning of coupledom – and even marriage itself – has been presented as the end of the narrative’s dramatic journey. The long-held institution of “happily ever after” assumes marriage and committed coupledom to be a reliably constant plane of uneventful happiness compared to the roller coaster of getting the couple together in the first place. Movies about long-term couplehood – or, more accurately, movies about breakups and divorce – have, by contrast, been the forte of independent and art house filmmaking, institutions markedly less invested in happy endings.
But for a social convention that so many people experience, for a form of human connection that takes up and develops throughout years of peoples’ lives, marriage and other forms of committed coupledom have provided significantly fewer narratives than stories of people getting together or people breaking up. Yet there is as much (if not more) drama, character development and awkward comedy in long-term commitment as there is in getting together.
David Fincher and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl offers a notable shift in this direction: an interrogation on the institution of shared living in the guise of a missing person thriller. But this film follows a couple of other, less blockbuster-y titles that share similarly incisive and unique takes on the subject of committed coupledom.
Taking medium specificity into account, the book “Gone Girl” does several things remarkably different from the film, despite Flynn operating as the bard of both. The novel deftly balances the complex subjectivities of both partners across the many mysteries and revelations, and what begins as a whodunit about whether one can really know their partner transforms into a study of an especially toxic relationship and finally emerges into a provocative illustration of how someone who might be the worst for another might also happen to be a perfect fit. It turns the chemistry of romance into an alchemy of compatibility, and by finally bringing the couple together – a satire on the reunion that defines the “happy ending” – examines how romance only operates relatively, on the particular connection developed between two personalities and how that inevitably shapes the other.
Gone Girl the film, as a casualty of the fact that the book’s structure is so difficult to reproduce cinematically, almost loses one half of the film’s shared subjectivity. After the revelation that Amy (Rosamund Pike) is still alive, she is turned into something of a case study in (admittedly fascinating) sociopathy, while the previously suspect (and profoundly dickish) Nick (Ben Affleck) risks becoming the stable victim, even the comic foil, to Amy’s narrative dominance. Where the Amy of the novel is at least understood subjectively, she becomes a force of consequence to be seen, admired, and feared in Fincher’s film, but never really understood, thereby risking making her into a villain in a film narrative otherwise uninterested in good/bad dichotomies and inherited moralism.
Others certainly disagree on this point, but Gone Girl’s loss of one half of the book’s shared subjectivity (especially its mishandling of the “cool girl” moment, an observation as key as the revelation it’s couched in) creates a missed opportunity for the film as a whole to address relationships in ways other Hollywood films haven’t.
Yet nonetheless, Fincher’s adaptation still addresses relationships in a way that perhaps no Hollywood film has before – at least, not since Vertigo. In a recent “Film Comment” interview, Fincher – wary that he could be branded as Hollywood’s go-to adapter of slick NYT bestsellers – said he was attracted to the material because he had never seen this type of story put to film before. And he’s right. Despite its inelegant handling of some of the book’s final moments, one of the most radical things about Gone Girl might be its ending, a shot that takes us exactly back where we started, its characters having gone to hell and back with nothing essentially changed – the uncertainty over the future of their relationship, and one’s inability to understand the person supposedly closest to them, remains a constant.
The film also juxtaposes Nick and Amy’s complicated (to put it mildly) relationship against the media spectacle of it, which creates a narrative not unfamiliar to anyone who has seen a Hollywood film – one that demands a happy ending and an uneventful plane of contentment in marriage. If Fincher’s Gone Girl is anything but an enthralling thriller, it’s a media satire lampooning the false narratives forced on the incredible complexity of human coupledom. And in that respect the film is singular. Try to imagine this same material having been made by Hollywood from an entirely original screenplay.
But outside of Hollywood, other films of 2014 have been addressing some of the same themes at the center of Gone Girl – the pendulum between compatibility and toxicity, whether you can really know the one you’re with. And most remarkably, as with Gone Girl they’ve both done so through the unique possibilities of fantastic genres.
Leigh Janiak’s Honeymoon is the rare example of a horror film that gracefully utilizes the heightened elements of its genre to metaphorically address big human questions that would feel forced and clunky in straightforward drama. The film tracks the first newlywed days between Bea (Game of Thrones’ Rose Leslie) and Paul (Harry Treadaway) as they visit the eternal genre fixture of a cabin in the woods for their honeymoon. The events take a predictably yet effectively creepy turn as Bea exhibits increasingly erratic behaviors after a mysterious incident in the woods.
Effective on its own as a horror film, Honeymoon uses the genre to explore the existential fear of one or the other member of a couple changing over time during a committed relationship, and in particular addresses the ways that past traumas can take on a force all their own. By its design, the film must occupy one of the couple’s subjectivities to deliver the horror of the transformation, yet it is nonetheless one of the more incisive films made of any genre that tackles fears incurred during early commitment.
First time feature writing/directing team Justin Lader and Charlie McDowell’s The One I Love uses science fiction for a high concept comedy of relationship manners similarly to Honeymoon’s exercise in nuptial horror. Facing marriage problems that don’t seem to be getting better through counseling, Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elizabeth Moss) are prescribed a visit to an illustrious country home where they encounter a mysterious guest house in which (spoiler alert!) alternate versions of the significant other magically appear anytime one member of the couple sets in. Sophie develops a deep affection for the 2nd Ethan, while the original Ethan ignores the 2nd Sophie in favor or jealously resenting his “better” self.
The One I Love was promoted through a secretive word-of-mouth campaign that hid its central conceit as if it were a gimmick, and such a choice speaks to the strength of the film’s first act in contrast to the subsequent diminishing returns of its unnecessarily plotty and increasingly convoluted twists and turns. But the conceit remains a brilliantly simple means of addressing the mismatched desires of couples for whom the honeymoon period is long over. Watching Duplass and Moss establish sober marital rules and boundaries for such an absurd, inexplicable sci-fi revelation is well enough justification to see this film.
In genre terms, romance and romantic comedies have often been categorized as separate from thrillers, horror and science-fiction. Yet nearly every narrative film has a relationship element to it – certainly most genre films. What Gone Girl, Honeymoon and The One I Love have accomplished is adopting those genre conceits yet examining how the extraordinary circumstances within them ultimately bear out in the shifting dynamics between the characters experiencing them. In doing so, these films shed light on certain dramatic opportunities that often go unnoticed in films that prefer formulaic and received depictions of coupledom.
They aren’t perfect, but I’ll take them over Happily Ever After any day.
Related Topics: David Fincher