The 1960s were a decade of change.
We went from the high & tight haircuts and skinny suits that were all too prevalent throughout the Kennedy Administration to the loose-fitting bell bottoms, civil unrest, and free-love that most people have come to associate with the decade.
The 1960s also saw Audrey Hepburn break out of stereotype that had plagued her for years.
The Eyes Wide Shut of its day, Two For the Road marked the beginning of the end of Hepburn‘s acting career. With a young son and a crumbling marriage (she and Mel would divorce a year after this film was released), Audrey would take an extended leave of absence from Hollywood in order to be a more present figure in her son’s life.
Much like the social and cultural shift that the decade experienced, Hepburn‘s film career in the 60s would be a reflection of the society that was quickly changing around her.
Arguably starting in 1961 with Breakfast at Tiffany‘s, the film roles Audrey would go on to star in betrayed the ‘waif-like’, ingénue typecast that she was known for earlier in her career.
Films like The Children’s Hour, How to Steal a Million and Wait Until Dark – all staples of Hepburn‘s later career – have a surprising amount of depth and feeling to their plot compared to the rather ‘superficial’ (I use that word lightly) characters that Hepburn has previously portrayed.
One of these movies, with more emotional depth than the Grand Canyon, is the aforementioned romantic drama Two For the Road.
Directed by the legendary Stanley Donen, Two For the Road or “TFTR” stars Audrey Hepburn and everyone’s favorite movie boyfriend Albert Finney as the bickering married pair of Mark and Joanna Wallace. Told in a non-linear format, Donen fabulously uses Joanna and Mark as an allegory for what can happen after 12 years of marriage.
In order to do that, Donen uses this format to present the couple at different stages of their marriage: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
The Good (Newlyweds – Year 1)
The film starts in France – the world’s most romantic country (or so they say.)
Current day Mark and Joanna are flying their white 1965 Mercedes 230SL up to the North of France, then down to St. Tropez in celebration of Mark’s latest architecture creation being completed. Right away, the tension between the couple is palpable and it escalates from there.
Before they even board their flight, there are already clear signs of contempt for one another. She asks for a box of cigarettes – he snaps back at her. He asks for his passport – she gives him the cold shoulder. He threatens her with divorce – she laughs in response.
As an audience member, this is hard to watch, but, it also makes you wonder.
What made them grow to hate each other so viciously?
Why don’t they get a divorce?
If they have them, what must their children think?
Just as I was asking myself these questions, Stanley Donen dives us head first into the Wallace’s tumultuous backstory.
It was the summer of 1954; Mark was a struggling, ‘down on his luck’ architect looking to catch a break and Joanna was a shy, rather witty member of an all-girls choir group.
They first meet on a ferry crossing post. Mark, furiously rummaging through his backpack, is desperately searching for his passport. This would be a major problem because the crossing guard would refuse him entry into another country if he failed to identify himself.
Looking defeated and on the verge of tears, a dainty wrist draped in a red sweater reaches over his shoulder to return, what appears to be, his passport.
When Mark gets up to thank this good Samaritan, he turns around and is face to face with the future mother of his child.
Joanna was otherwise known as ‘Jo,’ was about to start a conversation with this handsome stranger, but Mark had other ideas. He swiftly gives his thanks and continues on his journey to self-discovery.
A couple of hours later while hitchhiking on a potato truck, Mark sees ‘Jo’ and a number of other girls stuck on the side of the road looking for a repairman. At first, his intention was to proceed on with his journey, but eventually, he slows down and helps them get back on the road.
Now hitchhiking with this girl’s choir, Joanna and Mark get an infinite amount of time to learn about each other.
As darkness night falls, Mark and the choir group spend the night in a dilapidated, centuries old, French inn. The next morning, something terrible has happened.
All of the girls, except for Mark and Joanna, have come down with chickenpox. Instead of advancing to their destination, the choir’s director (played by Jacqueline Bisset) instructs the two to keep going without them.
So, they did.
The couple spent the rest of their time hitchhiking around the old cobblestone cities of France, stealing fruit from vendors and making love til dawn. Inevitably, Joanna believes that they should get married. After much trepidation, Mark excitedly agrees.
The Bad (Recent Past – Year 6)
Giving us their backstory, Donen cleverly switches the timeline to 1960 – about 6 years into their marriage.
Skinny ties, cardigans and dark-rimmed glasses – galore!
The Wallaces have conformed.
Now with a child (this will come back to haunt the couple, later) Mark and Joanna have begun to lose the magnetism that initially attracted them towards one another in the first place.
This lack of attraction manifests itself in a carpool alongside Mark’s ex-girlfriend (played by Eleanor Bron) her husband (played by William Daniels) and their 5-year-old daughter Ruth (played by Gabrielle Middleton.) Normally laid back and agreeable folk, the Wallaces are more than happy to put up with a bratty 5-year-old for a few hours.
It isn’t until Ruth refuses to give up the location of her father’s missing car keys (which she threw out of the window out of spite) that Mark and Joanna reach their wit’s end.
After spending 12 hours in a car with a whiny toddler, Joanna has had enough. With nighttime imminent and hunger pains growing louder, Mrs. Wallace twists the little girl’s arm, forcing her to give up the location of the key.
She ultimately does, and before her parents can apologize Joanna and Mark decide to travel alone.
This is the moment where Mark and Joanna (Mark, especially) decide not to have children. But, little did he know that wouldn’t be the case.
The Ugly (Current – Year 12)
When we return to the present day, Donen intercuts several different, defining, moments (all ones pertaining to the downfall of their marriage) during this current timeline.
Current day Mark and Joanna have reached their destination of St. Tropez and it appears that all hope is lost for their relationship.
“What kind of people can sit there without saying a word to each other?” Joanna asks. Mark replies, “Married people.”
As this scene ends, Donen turns our attention to another period where – again – we see Mark and Joanna on a trip to, somewhere. Donen doesn’t specify where, but, looking at the scenery, it resembles the French countryside, the same countryside where they originally fell in love.
It’s implied that Joanna chose this location specifically because it holds such a memorable place in her heart.
It’s also the place where ‘Jo’ tells Mark she’s pregnant. Mark is hesitant to become a father but is happy nonetheless. This announcement happens to coincide with Mark getting a job offer from a very wealthy Frenchman named Maurice Dalbert (played by Claude Dauphin.)
For the next few months, the Wallaces live in France while Mark makes a sizeable income as an architect for a rather demanding client.
Everything seems to be going well for them until Mark confesses to stepping on her while on a business trip. Understandably hurt about his revelation, Donen cuts back to the present day before we could see her response.
The next story is perhaps the most emotionally heavy in the film. In another timeline shift, Donen shows Mark, Joanna, and their child Caroline in a hotel room after – what looks to be – another road trip of sorts.
While sleeping comfortably in her crib a few feet away from them, Caroline’s parents have heated discussion about whether or not that should’ve had her. This “conversation” (more like a shouting match leaves Joanna in tears and Mark in frustration.
For the last and final time in the movie, Donen cuts back to the modern day with Mark and Joanna on the verge of divorce.
Joanna’s *ahem* extracurricular activities with taller, skinnier, richer Frenchmen named David (played to perfection by Georges Descrières) leaves Mark a broken man.
What started as a fling, has now turned into a full-fledged affair that threatens the state of their marriage.
Mark concedes defeat and starts his journey back home.
As this is happening, David and Joanna have a meal by the beachside.
Ironically, this time it’s her lover David that asks the question,”what kind of people can sit there without a word to say to each other?”
Joanna emphatically responds,”Married people!” realizing she truly does love Mark.
In the film’s finale, Mark and Joanna have a heart to heart about their relationship and agree that they should stay together. As they cross the border of France into Italy, not only does it signal a change in scenery and clientele for Mark but, it also symbolically signals a new start for their relationship.
Why This Film is a ‘Hidden Gem.’
Two for The Road is an impeccably directed, acted, and presented movie, unfortunately not too many people know about it.
When people discuss Hepburn‘s filmography, they usually speak about her more popular films.
You know the ones.
Roman Holiday, Sabrina, Funny Face, Charade, Breakfast at Tiffany‘s et cetera et cetera. Sadly, Two For the Road never makes the list and it should. This movie shows a different side to Audrey, and I have Stanley Donen to thank.
Donen created a film that showed the unglamorous side of marriage. His depictions of love, lust, and heartbreak were flawless. The pairing of Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn worked perfectly (too perfectly.) What Stanely Donen did was unprecedented, he created a movie that portrayed the realities of marriage using the (under-rated) technique of non-linear formatting.
With this method, he was showed the exact moments where the marriage went south, and how it could – possibly – be prevented.
I don’t think another movie like this could be made – and I don’t want it to be.
Bravo, Stanley Donen, Bravo.