The Bridges of Madison County (1995)

Dir. Clint Eastwood. Starring Meryl Streep, Clint Eastwood, Annie Corley

The Bridges of Madison County is empty. In a movie that needs beautiful moments to live, there is only one beautiful moment in the entire flick. Happily it occurs at a key moment, lingering on a turn signal, the sight of a man through a windshield, wipers, and another window obscured further by pouring rain. The blue-gray of the scene is beautiful, and it affirms further the deep melancholy that Francesca (Streep) and Robert (Eastwood) are feeling in this moment of farewell. It’s a scene that genuinely works, even if it doesn’t always trust the viewer to follow the movie’s thoughts. Someone has to say, in voiceover, that Robert is waiting for Francesca to leave her husband and climb into Robert’s truck; we have to see close-ups of Streep’s hands on the latch. So the movie thinks, anyway; personally, I think we would’ve gotten the idea from silence and medium shots. (More on this soon.) There’s so much honest feeling in Streep’s face and Eastwood’s posture and Jack N. Green’s color that even after two hours of maladroit fumbling for romance, you can’t help but feel their hurt. At this point in the picture, I had been out on it for nearly two hours, and yet it still wrapped me up. There’s good filmmaking somewhere in this movie.

There are ways of telling a dramatic story about an affair without making it into Brief Encounter, but on the other hand: 1) Why wouldn’t you? 2) There’s a reason Brief Encounter is better than the movie you’re coming up with. Brief Encounter may be shameless melodrama, but it is as lean, so to speak, as a hungry wolf, and it has the same appetite for throats. At its heart, this movie could be nearly as wiry and strong. The story of a middle-aged woman who has been swept away from her ancestral home to live in a cultural backwater with a painfully dull husband and two kids she hardly connects to is, I think, both relatable and sympathetic. (Credit where it’s due: the movie makes it clear that Iowa is not the world’s most interesting place or even its kindest, but it never condescends to the Midwest.) It is no surprise that when a well-traveled, interesting man shows up and takes interest in her, she falls. His reasons for falling are less clear, but as in Brief Encounter, it seems far more important that our heroine’s reasoning is brought to the forefront rather than our hero’s. The catch is that he’ll only be in Iowa for a few more days, and even before he leaves, her family will come home from the Illinois State Fair. The plot seems like a no-fail proposition. It has urgency, resentment, verve, regret, risk, and even some strains of passion. Unfortunately, the plot never really brings those elements to bear. In my experiences it saves all of its powder for that good scene at the end without using it intermittently, where it would absolutely have done more good.

The Bridges of Madison County is too distracted by its trappings, and it certainly doesn’t lack for those. They’re there in the writing, in the acting, in the backstories of the characters. Someone among the filmmakers thought to himself, “What if this were a story with generational consequences?” as opposed to “What if this were a gripping, immemorial love story?” Far be it from me to call for the latter to the exception of the former; imagine The Magnificent Ambersons or Giant purely as love stories and shudder with me. But a movie must know where its strengths lie, and the strength of this movie is not in two generations of Iowans fixating on four days of torrid sex. This movie has Streep and Eastwood, and Eastwood is giving quite possibly the best performance of his career. The best parts of its plot, as named above, are the parts that Streep and Eastwood can bring to the forefront; Francesca’s children feel some predictable resentment at the beginning of the movie, and other than that they lack those best pieces. In other words, The Bridges of Madison County should have known better, and it didn’t. (I think I hear some people in the back saying, “Yes, that’s how Clint Eastwood movies often are!”)

That’s why that rainy scene towards the end of the movie stands out to me; it is a scene of simplicity unique in The Bridges of Madison County. No other scene is so straightforward and powerful. Just about everything else in the movie exists to confound, belittle, and otherwise muddy the story of Francesca and Robert’s romance. Streep, playing Full Accent Streep (You may remember me from The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Sophie’s Choice, A Cry in the Dark…), is perfectly good and also terribly distracting. Francesca may miss her Italian hometown, Bari, but there’s no reason for us as viewers to think that Meryl Streep might have been born there. Clint Eastwood is surprisingly good in this movie; anyone who is as obviously gentle and calm as Robert is the right choice, and even though I think Eastwood crosses the way from “rugged” to “looks like he just crawled out of the grave” There are too many tears and too many monologues in this movie, which are like roadblocks to more honest feeling. There are too many reaction shots, especially of Eastwood, instead of longer takes which would build sentiment. All of these are signposts, fears that the audience won’t know what to feel without cheerleaders holding up signs saying GET WEEPY and FEEL INDIGNANT and HOPE AGAINST HOPE. It even feels like the writer, Richard LaGravenese, doesn’t know how to proceed without falling into sad little tropes. In one scene, near the end of Robert’s stay in Iowa, he’s eating breakfast while Francesca suddenly comes unhinged. She begins yelling. She throws their eggs into the sink. She accuses him of having an easy mark in every port, tells him that he doesn’t really care about her, and all the while all Robert does is tell her to stop being ridiculous. I had hoped that this movie would manage to avoid a cheap argument which advanced neither character nor plot, but alas; it was too scared not to have some silly quarrel about two-thirds of the way through the movie, as if there wasn’t enough drama in the hearts of the people on screen.

LaGravenese, who has been one of my sworn enemies ever since he delivered the most mediocre The Last Five Years possible, is at least partly responsible for the godawful plot structure. Nothing could be more distracting from a romance than the invasion of other people, and by setting up Francesca’s grown children (Corley and Victor Slezak) as meaningful supporting characters, the purpose of Francesca’s short affair with Robert is not to show us what the two of them are like, but to make her affair a tawdry “Omigosh, Mom did what?” subplot. The fact that neither Corley nor Slezak appears capable of giving a performance beyond the level of community theater makes me wonder what those scenes are even doing there. Switching between the two time periods (and beginning with the kids!) is the equivalent of pouring water from your tap into a chili that’s been simmering on the stove; it unnecessarily dilutes your concoction, and worse still, there’s no turning back. The Bridges of Madison County can’t decide what’s important. Is it more important that Robert and Francesca fell hard for one another or is it more important that her children find out about it as unhappily married adults? It seems to me that the former is significantly more interesting than a couple of grown-ups pawing through their dead mom’s belongings, but The Bridges of Madison County is much less certain.

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