Sex, sex, sex. FBI cell phones used for “sexting”! Roger Clemens’ tragic 15-year-old mistress, who says Roger had bedroom problems from steroid use! This fabulous infographic, “What We Can Learn From 10,000 Porn Stars”! (Go ahead. I’ll wait.)
We are intensely curious about other folks’ sex lives. This is an odd subject for curiosity: Bedroom hi-jinks are generally so straightforward and pedestrian that midgets, puddings, and random buzzing implements are added to give them some variety. There’s not much to learn from all of our curiosity.
On the other hand, we rarely are particularly curious about other peoples’ marriages. While we love to spy into bedrooms, we rarely spy into living rooms. This is equally odd, because marriage is fascinating. What could be more complex and mysterious than the ways that two people work out a lifelong companionship? What could be more esoteric and valuable than an understanding of how couples “make marriage work”?
The first fascinating thing about marriage is how such a thing is possible at all…that is, a conscious and satisfying lifetime connection with another person. Of course, it is not hard for two people to say some vows and then live their lives as two strangers sharing a blanket. As Gary Shteyngart’s Dr. Girshkin put it, in The Russian Debutante’s Handbook:
Your mother, nu, I picture she’ll be here with me till the end. We are like one of those many unfortunate corporate mergers they’ve had in the past decade; we are like Yugoslavia.
My touchstone when it comes to the unlikelhood of marriage is the television program “Shipmates,” a reality show produced in 2001-2003 that really should be cited more often by sociologists. In each episode of “Shipmates,” a single man and a single woman are sent on a three-day-long blind date on a cruise ship. Typically, the polite veneers of these strangers wear thin quickly as they spend entirely too much time together, burdened by the expectation that they will find chemistry with one another. This inevitably results in story lines that lie somewhere between Lord of The Flies and Heart of Darkness. The two ordinarily end up fleeing to opposite ends of the boat, putting on their game faces and dramatically grind-dancing with unwitting other passengers to prove that the failure of the blind date was the other dater’s fault. Yugoslavia, indeed.
Unhappy marriages are as inevitable and predictable as the weary conflicts on “Shipmates.” As Billy Joel put it, they are the cold remains of what began with a passionate start.
Successful marriage, on the other hand, is a true mystery. What makes a marriage work? There is a book that attempts a methodical description of marriage, Intimate Partners…but that was published in 1986, when couples were still watching Casablanca on Betamax videotape.
Understanding a successful marriage is made even harder by the fact that husbands and wives often spend their first years focused on nest-building. They get promotions, fix up a house or apartment, raise small children, go to PTA meetings. emergency rooms, and Home Depots. They are not unhappily married; their romance is just on unattended auto-pilot. Divorce often comes when this “Marriage, Incorporated” phase ends.
So, to the Oscar-nominated feature “Amour,” which is on my mind this Academy Awards Sunday.
“Amour” takes place entirely in the Paris apartment of a long-married couple, Georges and Anne, who are in their 80’s. They are retired music teachers who love the cultural life of Paris. They go out to recitals and discuss the performance as they make tea in their modest kitchen. They are too feeble to carry groceries up the stairs to their apartment, and ultimately are too feeble to go out at all. They have only one another and the daily routines of their shut-in lives. They do this with patience, kindness, and a tender regard for one another, despite the health problems that make up the narrative of the film.
The producers were smart to title their film “Amour.” It’s easy to think of love in the Hollywood rom-com way: Fresh-faced and big-spirited couples who meet cute and wisecrack their way into realizing that their concavities and convexities might just fit. We are satisfied that when Benjamin rides away with Elaine on a bus, she still in her wedding dress, or when Harry and Sally finally kiss at the stroke of New Year’s Day, their story has been fully told. But, “Amour” asks a bigger question about love: What is it that we call “love” when all that is left of a marriage is the companionship of two lifetime partners, without any of the shared activities, sex, or even conversation, that fill most marriages? What does it mean to be committed, patient, and supportive when life consists of nothing but the routine of caretaking?
In that very French way, the answer seems to be, there is no question to answer. There is no question of commitment, patience, or support. Georges and Anne are married. They are two parts of a single unit. They nurture and feed and look out for one another in the same way that a person will look out for himself. When Anne falls ill, there is no question about whether Georges will continue to care for her, or whether he will honor his promise never to allow her to go back into the hospital.
“Amour,” in this film, is not romance, or nest-building, or “making marriage work,” or even happiness, It is two people living as if they are one. If there is any satisfying definition of a true marriage, any window into that most complex and unlikely of miracles, I would say that this is the one.