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Who Is This Stranger I Married?

Several current movies argue that those closest to us are harboring dark secrets

June 02, 2002|STEPHEN FARBER

Many great writers have dramatized the profound misunderstandings that so often sabotage honest communication. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "American Pastoral," Philip Roth mused about our futile interactions with other people: "You get them wrong before you meet them, while you're anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you're with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception."

But surely there's an exception to this bleak vision of human separateness? When we finally find a life partner, don't we come to know that one special person as intimately as we know ourselves? That's certainly the comforting myth of love and marriage that our culture has inculcated. Over the decades, movies have helped to propagate this soothing view of marriage as the triumphant antidote to human isolation.

At least that used to be the popular cinematic wisdom. Now the message is being turned on its head. Current films are warning us that our spouses, the people in whom we place our deepest trust, can be counted on to cheat, deceive, betray, and abuse us. Consider the deeply cynical plots of these movies:

* The current hit "Unfaithful," adapted from a Claude Chabrol film about marital infidelity, focuses on a deceptive wife (Diane Lane) who embarks on a furtive, torrid extramarital affair and blithely misleads her husband (Richard Gere). As the story progresses, she learns that her lover (Olivier Martinez) has his own complicated marital and romantic history that he's concealed from her.

* In the recent thriller "High Crimes," high-powered attorney Ashley Judd learns that she doesn't even know the real name of her loving husband, Jim Caviezel, who had a whole other identity in the Marines before he married her. Suddenly she has to face the fact that the man she thought she knew may have slaughtered innocent civilians in El Salvador.

* The acclaimed French film "Time Out" offers a somewhat different slant on marital deception. A successful executive loses his job but is ashamed to tell his wife and family, so he spins a web of lies, embarks on a series of fictitious business trips, and keeps up the charade for months.

* In the just-released revenge drama "Enough," there's an even darker tinge to the tale of marital betrayal. Jennifer Lopez marries a wealthy construction tycoon (Billy Campbell) who seems to adore her. It is only after several years of marriage that she realizes he is not simply a philanderer but a homicidal maniac; he threatens her with savage physical abuse if she dares to challenge his authority.

* This same motif is part of the back story of the recent thriller "Murder by Numbers," in which Sandra Bullock plays a tough cop still trying to come to terms with her marriage to a man who abused her brutally.

This summer, audiences will see "The Good Girl," a hot ticket at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Jennifer Aniston plays a bored checkout clerk who commences an affair with a disturbed co-worker (Jake Gyllenhaal). Even when her husband (John C. Reilly) discovers the affair, Aniston continues to lie to him about the true identity of the father of her child.

In another Sundance hit, "One Hour Photo," also opening this summer, Robin Williams plays a photo clerk who is mesmerized by the apparently idyllic life of a family that brings in photographs for him to develop. When he learns that the husband is cheating on the wife, he becomes deranged; his illusions about an all-American marriage are shattered.

It's ironic that this batch of movies is reaching us in the months after Sept. 11, during a period when we were told there was a boom in marriages and a growing desire by Americans to cling to hearth and home as the only reliable source of solace in a world that had turned supremely hazardous.

Now the movies are undercutting that last bit of comfort, warning us that we shouldn't trust our spouses any more than we trust the strangers who may be plotting our destruction. Of course these movies were all in the works long before Sept. 11, but they may be even more painful to behold at a time when we're trying to find some common values that we can still embrace.

I don't mean to suggest that all new movies highlight rotten marriages. The G-rated hit "The Rookie" tells the story of a high school coach (Dennis Quaid) who fulfills his dream of pitching in the major leagues, while his wife (Rachel Griffiths) provides rock-solid support.

But such ringing tributes to marriage are definitely in the minority these days.

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