More Movie Analysis: The Lovers

By Dr. Mara Wagner

I attended the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute’s (BPSI’s) film night at the Coolidge Corner Cinema  in May, where The Lovers was on the screen and “off the couch” in the discussion that followed.  In this film (spoiler alert) a middle aged married couple carry on long term, lackluster affairs with needy lovers and avoid each other at home, each hoping the other has to “work late” again.   The action, slow and almost painfully protracted, is as if choreographed in slow motion; the BPSI discussant likened it to a silent film in this regard.  Indeed, there is little language.  We feel the unhappiness, the boredom, the stuckness of this couple not only with each other, but with their whining and threatening lovers who are demanding that their slack partners tell their spouses they will be leaving the marriage immediately.  The symmetry of the situation is near isomorphic, and to be fair, this part is a bit funny.

The color design of the film is as dull as any I have ever seen while the musical score is lush and romantic, the first clue to the vast ironic distance we will feel throughout. Indeed, several scenes are shot through glass- shower doors, board room doors, windows.  We can see but can’t touch these people, and they seem to have the same problem. There is no real closeness, even with the so called lovers; all is lies, avoidance, empty promises, dull dull dull, almost as dull as Monty Python’s Camel Spotting, only mostly not funny. One viewer wondered why it had been billed as a comedy.  We learn that the couple’s college son will be arriving with his girlfriend for a visit that no one seems happy about.  No one can remember if he eats meat.

Then one day the married couple, Mary and Michael, wake facing each other and realize they have sleepily kissed, mistaken each other for lovers.  This shocks and excites them and they begin a torrid affair which makes us hopeful that they and the marriage will come alive, that there will be some genuine closeness at last.  The slow motion gradually speeds up, they are eager to see each other again.  The sex becomes actually passionate.  They make lame excuses to their lovers about why they cannot get away for their usual assignations.

The angry son arrives with his loving girlfriend who warms things up between him and his parents considerably.  Through her eyes we see a better version of the grumpy, grudging son; we are happy that at least he does not seem to have chosen a dull partnership like his folks.  The mature, curious girlfriend gets the father talking about the early days of the parents’ courtship, his aspirations to be a musician, the fact that the piano has become only a shelf.  The son accidentally sees his parents in a loving embrace in the kitchen and is softened by this hopeful development.  He has told his girlfriend that they hate each other and that if he ever acts like either of them, she must punch him in the face.  Of course (more irony) he already acts like both his parents, according his own feelings a regard much higher than those of the people around him, insisting on his point of view above all.  But in witnessing the loving moment between his parents, he shows us a bit of tenderness inside the sullen crust.  Will things improve all around?  He will cook dinner that night!

At the market the day before the son arrives, and coming home from the market the day he will cook, each of Mary and Michael’s other lovers appear out of nowhere to tell their rivals that they will soon be dumped, or rather in the case of Michael’s lover, Lucy, to hiss and make scratching motions with her claws. The son angrily confronts the father with his cheating, the mother tells him she is also at fault and that she has planned to tell everyone during this visit that the marriage is over.  He swipes things off surfaces and storms upstairs to order his girlfriend to pack faster so they can leave immediately. Downstairs, the father slowly begins to play the piano, now disabused of the books it has shelved.  It is a wistful love song featuring the theme of unexpected longing for the lost partner.  The couple clean up the dumped objects after the kids leave and after one more hopeful heartbeat, the scene turns seamlessly to them separating their belongings without apparent grief and moving in with their lovers.  Next morning, or one of many next mornings, the formerly married couple talk secretly on the phone and plan their next assignation, now cheating on their lovers with each other.

The discussant felt hopeful that Mary and Michael would find love for each other again, after this enactment and with the benefit of the warming that occurred with the young couple’s visit.  He felt that they had established what in his psychoanalytic tradition is called a “third”, or an “analytic third” in the case of a treatment relationship.  In other words we could describe it as a triangular Oedipal structure rather that a dyadic pre-Oedipal structure.  In achieving this maturational step, a person becomes able to see separate people outside the self and take a genuine interest in them as whole people with needs and points of view of their own.

It is rare that I am not among the most hopeful people in any crowd, but I did not agree with this view.  I found it more a portrait of the sad fact that love objects are easily replaceable, interchangeable at the narcissistic phase of development at which these people were all stuck.  It did not seem to matter who the couple were with, they cheated both on their spouses and their lovers anyway, pretending a closeness they mostly did not feel.  Although there were warm and nearly genuine moments between any and all of the pairs, no one fanned the flames into a closeness that could grow and develop into something enduring.  I saw it as a case of terminal ambivalence where each person in the couple were unwilling to suffer the loss of other lovers in making the choice to be together.  The wish represented in the film-as-dream seemed not to be for a passionate relationship, as in most movies featuring lovers outside marriage, but rather just a wish to insure that there were other lovers outside the supposed bond of the committed partnership.  A way out.  A way to dilute or prevent closeness in any pair.  Or even a simple attachment to the thrill of cheating itself, no matter the other people involved.  When the thrill wears off, just cheat on your lover with your spouse.

I flippantly described the movie to a colleague as “too ironic for its pants”.  The irony seemed to boil down to the fact that despite the forbidden and clandestine nature of the various lovers’ meetings, there was no real love nor even many moments of passion.  I found it sad, and I couldn’t like anyone but the girlfriend. In the view of the discussant, she was the figure who would be seen as representing the analyst if this were a portrait of a natural therapeutic relationship.  In this view, I agreed with him.  The girlfriend asked good questions and was genuinely trying to understand things from other points of view.  Too bad no one could sustain the inquiry.

I once heard a noted film director say he tried to boil the theme of all his films down to one word.  I tried this challenge several months ago when there was a wave of good films in the theaters.  I got Arrival down to “Return”, and Nocturnal Animals down to “Revenge”.  A lesser film,  Live by Night, was clearly “Repent”.  This clever alliterative exercise intrigued me, and I try to apply it now as another layer in film analysis.  I still prefer the usual dream analysis method where the unconscious wish is sought in the symbolic content and the action, but this exercise makes things as simple and clear as possible.  So what word would sum up the theme of this film? “Reverse”?  Cute, and fitting with the other three, but not quite it, since there is likely to be yet another return to the original couple and then another reversal.  If verse connotes speech, something pretty lacking in the film, we could call it “Pre-verse” and that comes close to capturing the psychodynamic formulation, including the hint at “perverse”, but doesn’t get at the action.  “Revolve”?  Closer, but implying something more ardent. “Repeat”?  All good films without a cure could be called that.  “Switch”?  No, that implies conscious swapping of some kind, I think, or it gets the action of all the cheating without the wish, which was where the passion was, not in the act.  I can’t quite get a word that satisfies me.  Maybe a new title will suffice. What can we call this lackluster story?  “The Lacklovers”?