"This kind of certainty comes but once in a lifetime."
Robert to Francesca
Eastwood's "The Bridges of Madison County" is not about love and not
about sex, but about an idea. The film opens with the information that two
people once met and fell in love, but decided not to spend the rest of their
lives together. The implication is: If they had acted on their desire, they
would not have deserved such a love.
everybody knows the story by now. Robert James Waller's novel has been a huge
best-seller. Its prose is not distinguished, but its story is compelling: He
provides the fantasy of total eroticism within perfect virtue, elevating to a
spiritual level the common fantasy in which a virile stranger materializes in
the kitchen of a quiet housewife and takes her into his arms.
gift is to make the housewife feel virtuous afterward.
is easy to analyze the mechanism, but more difficult to explain why this film
is so deeply moving -- why Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep have made it into a
wonderful movie love story, playing Robert and Francesca. We know, of course,
that they will meet, fall in love and part forever. It is necessary that they
part. If the story had ended "happily" with them running away
together, no one would have read Waller's book and no movie would exist. The
emotional peak of the movie is the renunciation, when Francesca does not open
the door of her husband's truck and run to Robert. This moment, and not the
moment when the characters first kiss, or make love, is the film's passionate
Eastwood announced that he had bought the novel and planned to direct and star
in the movie, eyebrows were raised.
had already cast it in their minds, and not with Eastwood -- or with Meryl
Streep, for that matter. There is still a tendency to identify Eastwood with
his cowboy and cop roles, and to forget that in recent years he has grown into
one of the most creative forces in Hollywood, both as an actor and a director.
He was taking a chance by casting himself as Robert Kincaid, but it pays off in
a performance that is quiet, gentle and yet very masculine.
Streep wonderfully embodies Francesca Johnson, the Italian woman who finds
herself with a husband and children, living on a farm in the middle of a flat
Iowa horizon. The two of them construct their performances not out of grand
gestures, but out of countless subtle little moments of growing love; a time
comes when they are solemn in the presence of the joy that has come to them.
is a photographer for National Geographic, shooting a story on the covered
bridges of the county. Francesca's husband and children have left home for
several days to go to the Illinois State Fair. Photographer and housewife meet,
and an awkward but friendly conversation leads to an offer of iced tea; then
she shyly asks him to stay for dinner.
of the story's mysteries is just when each of them becomes erotically aware of
the other, and there is a moment, when he goes out to get beer from the car,
and she pauses while preparing salad, when she not quite smiles to herself. She
seems happy; there is a lift in her heart. In another scene, she answers the
telephone and, standing behind him, adjusts his collar, brushes his neck with
her finger, and then leaves her hand resting on his shoulder. Very quietly.
and his cinematographer, Jack N. Green, find a wonderful play of light, shadow
and candlelight in the key scenes across the kitchen table, with jazz and blues
playing softly on a radio. They understand that Richard and Francesca are not
falling in love with each other, exactly -- that takes time, when you are
middle-aged -- but with the idea of their love, with what Richard calls
"certainty." One of the sources of the movie's poignancy is that the
flowering of the love will be forever deferred; they will know they are right
for each other, and not follow up on their knowledge.
wants her to leave with him. The notion is enormously attractive to her. Life
on the farm is "not what I dreamed of when I was a girl." She envies
his life of travel. Not understanding quite how tied she is to the land, he
suggests her husband could take her "on a safari." Her smile shows
what a wild idea that is. "What's he like?" Robert asks. "He's
very clean," she replies. "Hard-working . . . gentle . . . a good
he is. The story never makes the mistake of portraying Richard Johnson as a bad
husband. But we have seen, in an early scene, that there is no conversation
around the Johnson family dinner table. With Robert Kincaid, there is much
conversation; they talk of their ideals, and she says, "But how can you
live for just what you want?" And, quietly, "We are the choices that
we have made, Robert." And they talk on, quoting Yeats, smoking Camels,
dancing to the radio.
of the scenes involving Eastwood and Streep find the right notes and shadings.
The surrounding story -- involving Francesca's adult son and daughter finding
her diaries and reading her story after her death -- is not as successful. I
know this framing mechanism, added by writer Richard LaGravenese, is necessary;
thewhole emotional tone of the
romance depends on it belonging to the lost past. And yet Annie Corley and
Victor Slezak, as Caroline and Michael, never seem quite real, and Michael's
shock at his mother's behavior, in particular, seems forced, like a story
device. The payoff at the end -- as they reassess their own lives -- seems
the central story glows. I've seen the movie twice now and was even more
involved the second time, because I was able to pay more attention to the
nuances of voice and gesture. Such a story could so easily be vulgarized, could
be reduced to obvious elements of seduction, sex and melodramatic parting.
Streep and Eastwood weave a spell, and it is based on that particular knowledge
of love and self that comes with middle age. Younger characters might have run
off together. Older ones might not have dared to declare themselves.
Bridges of Madison County" is about two people who find the promise of
perfect personal happiness, and understand, with sadness and acceptance, that
the most important things in life are not always about making yourself happy.