We feel each twist of their hearts

PORTFOLIO

Stories of painful marriages and unhappy families engage us with what happens around - and in the spaces between - love.

February 17, 2002|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN ARTS WRITER

Say what you will about well-written murder mysteries and suspenseful thrillers; for truly excruciating tension, there's nothing like watching a relationship unravel.

Icy silences. Seething resentments. Broken promises. Public slights. These are things that keep me on the edge of my seat in theaters, or turning the pages of books. For pure stress, wondering whodunit simply can't compare to worrying about the husband/wife, father/son, mother/daughter relationship that's disintegrating in front of me.

Recently, I watched two well-crafted films in which the relationships slowly (oh, so slowly) fray and twist in the chill wind of familiarity and contempt. Lantana takes its name from a flowering bush armed with treacherously tangled and thorny branches. Set in Sydney, Australia, the film tells the stories of four couples as wounding and intertwined as the plant itself.

Sonja (Kerry Armstrong) is trying to rekindle the passion in her marriage to Leon, a policeman in mid-life crisis (Anthony LaPaglia) by forcing him to take dance lessons. But Leon's having an affair with a woman who has recently left her husband. Valerie (Barbara Hershey) is Sonja's therapist, whose own marriage to John (Geoffrey Rush) is crumbling in the aftermath of their daughter's death. John simmers with resentment and hurt, unable to reconcile his wife's method of dealing with grief with his own. Almost no one in this movie seems able to connect with his or her spouse until the very end - and for at least one couple, that's too late.

In the Bedroom is just as painful. Grief is the disease that threatens to overcome a marriage between the middle-class New England husband and wife whose relationship is a key element of the story. Their marriage begins to teeter after the murder of their 21-year-old son.

The film unfolds slowly, following Ruth (Sissy Spacek) and Matt (Tom Wilkinson) day by day - to the choral lessons Ruth teaches at high school, to Matt's medical office, to the store and to bed, as life grinds on after their son's murder. Each day is filled with stony silences and miscues until, finally, husband and wife turn on each other.

By the end of the movie, they come to a resolution of sorts, but one that never will console them. By the end of the movie, I was exhausted, wrung out by their pain and inability to comfort one another.

`A Rorschach'

These are rich, saddening and believable tales because they mimic parts of our own complex and inevitably imperfect relationships. These are our dreams and nightmares, our days and nights, our spouses and parents and children. And these reflections of ourselves make for the most powerful narratives - and sometimes the most agonizing.

Tales like these "are such a Rorschach for your own life," says Charlotte Stoudt, dramaturg at Baltimore's Center Stage. "You have to ask yourself what it is in your own life that makes this so agonizing. `Why am I afraid of this in my own life?' "

More than 50 years after Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman, the play, in which Willy Loman continually betrays his wife and disillusions his sons, still has enormous resonance. In the 1999 Tony Award-winning revival, actors Brian Dennehy and Elizabeth Franz portrayed the relationship between salesman and wife in particularly torturous fashion. "I never want to be alone in the room with that play again," Stoudt says.

Nuances can be infinite

It's the ring of truth that elevates a play or book or film to the level of great art. And it's that same truth that can make some works nearly unbearable. Little wonder that I can watch Arnold Schwarzenegger take out a slew of bad guys without flinching; I'm not emotionally engaged. But I cringe during movies like Affliction, which stars James Coburn as a violent father and Nick Nolte as a son who is just like him.

However painful, the battles, feuds and silences between those who profess to love one another are endlessly fascinating. The themes are the same, but the nuances can be infinite. It is as Russian author Leo Tolstoy wrote in the first line of his novel Anna Karenina: "All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Whether an argument over an inheritance between brother and sister or two lovers battling for control or out of jealousy, this is the stuff of human drama - and great art. "Conflict is the essence of plot, and conflict within the family cuts close to the bone for all of us," says Sister Kathleen Feeley, former president at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, who teaches 20th-century American literature.

Think Cain and Abel.

Macbeth.

Ulysses.

"Cain killed Abel, and the story is like a prototype for all the ages," Feeley says. "From the beginning of time - before business relationships, before outside friendships - familial relationships have been with us. Our lives have been shadowed by myth, and these myths often have conflicts stemming from familial relationships."

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