The Bridges of Madison County

(Clint Eastwood, USA , 1995)


There are always new romantic comedies around at the movies, but straight-down-the-line romances – romantic dramas – are a rarer commodity. Not light soap operas, or tongue-in-cheek parodies of soap operas, but full-blown sentimental dramas, where the melodramatic dilemmas of love are raised to a tearful – virtually oceanic – intensity. My particular Achilles heel as a critic is a fatal weakness for these oceanic romantic dramas. I cry and shake during them, and believe immediately afterwards that I have just seen the most important, profound, sublime film of the year. Years later, when I force myself to watch these movies again, I usually temper my evaluation somewhat. This happened to me with Barbra Streisand’s The Prince of Tides (1991), and Lasse Hallstrom’s family drama Once Around (1991).

My tendency to over-respond to these films certainly has something to do with my own propensity for romantic sentimentality. But it also has to do with the naked bravery of these rare excursions into the terrain of pure romance: these are precious films.

The Bridges of Madison County is a pure romance in every sense, stripping a basic soap opera situation down to its bare essence. In The Prince of Tides, Streisand had to camouflage the love story between herself and Nick Nolte with all manner of other plot and psychological intrigues – their therapy, his past, her son, and so on – while Eastwood cuts right to the chase.

In 1965, Clint is Robert, a photojournalist, who stumbles into Iowa looking for covered bridges to photograph. By chance, he encounters Francesca, played by Meryl Streep. She has just bid farewell, for four days, to her husband and two children. This is how a romance begins: he’s been diverted from his path, and she’s suddenly a free woman, at a loose end. For both of them, time and obligations have been magically suspended. So they let themselves get to know each other.

It’s a gradual, tentative, agonising business. Eastwood as director lays out every tiny step of this liaison: the invitations to ride in a car or visit a bridge or share dinner, the phone conversations that are tensely polite, the doubts, the preparations. Each time, the complex nuances of anxiety and yearning, and pesky stabs of moral compunction, are wonderfully conveyed.

Eventually, the sex begins. This is not an explicit or graphic film, but it’s a damned sexy one. In one incredible scene, Francesca spies for just a second on Robert in the shower. When he’s out, she herself takes a bath. We see her caressing the water that’s lapping around her, touching the drips that are coming from the shower nozzle. In her thick Italian accent, Streep swoons in voice-over, having an erotic reverie about her sensual proximity to the physical after-trace of this wonderful man. "I found this intensely erotic", she confides to us. "Almost everything about Robert was intensely erotic". And if you’re wondering whether Clint Eastwood, at the ripe age of 65, actually has the imagination or the nerve to turn himself into a soulful sex object in his own movie, then put a torch to those doubts: we see and appreciate Robert through Francesca’s eyes in this movie, and the spectacle is ecstatic.

So this is the classic ‘brief encounter’ of the romantic drama: just four days, out of time, routine and schedules. It’s a romance that provides erotic liberation, and a glimpse of profound soul connection between two people. But what happens when this idyll is over? As their deadline approaches, tensions, anxieties and resentments ignite and explode, especially in Francesca. In many ways, the film is essentially Francesca’s story. It’s her liberation which is the most intensely, keenly felt, and it’s she who stands to lose the most, and be hurt the most when it’s over. Robert, after all, is a free spirit, a nomad, a grown-up bohemian without attachments – he likes to just "go with the mystery", as he jauntily says. Francesca, on the other hand, is stuck with her husband and kids. Is this status quo a rut, or worse, a soul-destroying prison for Francesca?

This is the other big question of romantic fiction which this movie confronts squarely. Francesca’s husband Richard is no prize, and he’s no match whatsoever for sexy Eastwood. But her daily life is not a hell; she has invested herself in it, and there is love, happiness and fulfilment there. She has to ask herself what much great romantic fiction asks, in a somewhat troubled and trembling spirit: which is the real love, finally – the daily (philosopher Stanley Cavell calls it diurnal) love of home and hearth, or the nocturnal abandon of ecstatic romance? Which of these loves lasts, and which one really fulfils? Daily love involves compromise, adjustment, a touch of self-sacrifice; romantic love promises total abandon, hedonistic pleasure, lived utopia, a revolutionary upheaval in the middle of dreary everyday life. Which of these loves can anyone bear to live with in the cold, clear, contemplative light of morning?

How do modern romances come to terms with these problems? I don’t include those more cynical or satirical films that take a studied, jaded view of romantic love as some big, filthy illusion, or more simply just an out-of-control disaster – Woody Allen‘s film Husbands and Wives (1992), for instance. Nor am I canvassing the suspicions about romantic love as an insidious myth or ideology, the kind of bitter critique Frank Hardy once expressed when he wrote: "Man put woman in a cage, and called it love".

I take for granted the premise of our truly romantic films that love is a real and powerful force. That’s exactly why these films tremble and quake so much as they dramatise and contemplate the issue, because they don’t want this force to slip away. These films do not try to talk themselves out of romantic love, or rationalise it away by common sense appeals to the reality-principle, to the obligations and responsibilities of everyday life. And yet they try to look hard and closely, with some measure of sensitivity and maturity, at the everyday bonds of love within marriages and families. It can be a tough call, trying to reach the point of absolute wisdom on this question.

But modern romantic films have a few cards up their sleeves. The Prince of Tides ended by expressing an intense fantasy about living a double life: "I only wish that there were two lives apportioned to every man – and every woman", Nick Nolte tells us. "It is in the presence of my wife and children that I acknowledge my life, my destiny". And yet the great romantic affair of his life will continue on in his mind, “as prayer, as regret, as praise”. In The Bridges of Madison County, there is much discussion of beauty, of the need to experience life’s intense beauty. To have experienced this beauty once, knowing full well that it’s ephemeral, impossible to live every day, is perhaps enough to inspire you for the rest of your days. Perhaps!

The Bridges of Madison County, while not cluttered with sub-plots and side intrigues like The Prince of Tides, nevertheless carries another story in the film besides that of Francesca and Robert. This is the story of Francesca’s children, a son and daughter, now grown-up in the present day. The film starts with them going through Francesca’s things after her death, puzzled why her will states that she wants to be cremated. As they read her diaries together, the story unfolds in flashback, while we return to this framing situation at various moments. The son, something of a stiff puritan, is shocked; the daughter, in the midst of her own marital crisis, is more instantly intrigued. She reflects that she never knew that her mother was Ana├»s Nin between baking cakes for school and community functions.

Eventually, both these characters will be affected and transformed by what they uncover. It’s a simple, classic plot device, and Eastwood uses it to ease us into the tale, and to reflect on the way that romantic fiction affects us, too, as viewers. In almost any other director’s hands, it would have been a hackneyed device. Even here it’s a little contrived, and more simplistic than anything else in the movie, but Eastwood stakes out his superbly pitched and modulated cinematic style from the first scenes.

Eastwood is a director of restraint, and distance. Quite literally, he cultivates a respectful camera distance from his subjects. He avoids close-ups, reserving them for the big emotional moments, when they’re going to really count. Generally, he likes to work with ample room in the frame, so that each character can inhabit their own ‘personal space’ with ease and grace. This is a somewhat old fashioned, classical style, but few filmmakers can exercise it with Eastwood’s quietly musical sense of rhythm and intonation.

Finally, it flowers into an elegiac style: without ever forcing the matter, Eastwood can bring out the heartbreaking poetry that can reside in the simplest, everyday gestures, the approach to a door, or the picking up of a phone; the shrug of a shoulder or the sudden dying away of a lover’s glance. It was these kinds of gestures, in a completely different dramatic setting and register, that made Unforgiven (1992) such a profoundly thrilling and unsettling masterpiece. The same poetic restraint extends to the music and sound effects. Throughout The Bridges of Madison County is a stream of popular love ballads, mainly by Johnny Hartman, tinkling away in the background on the radio. Their words and sentiments are sometimes poignant, sometimes ironic, but the effect is never heavy-handed. The sound of these songs is like a constant patter of raindrops, setting a lightly melancholic background mood.

But, as Eastwood demonstrated in the masterful and underrated A Perfect World (1993), he can also pull out the stops for big, dramatic cinematic moments, able to put things together like one of his early mentors, Sergio Leone. At the emotional climax of The Bridges of Madison County, there is an astonishing, lacerating scene with Francesca in a truck with her husband, and there, suddenly in front of her, is Robert giving her one last chance to decide her romantic destiny. It’s an almost wordless, rain-swept, excruciatingly drawn-out spectacle; Francesca’s heart seemingly swells to the point of bursting as her hand, in close-up, hesitates on the handle of the door handle beside her: the film is worth celebrating for this one magnificent set piece alone.

In an interview, Eastwood spoke of needing to infuse this film with "real time": a certain easy unfolding of moments, conversations, letting the characters hang out with each other, and us hang out with them. The terrific rapport between Eastwood and Meryl Streep recalls the words of Cavell in his book about romantic comedy, Pursuits of Happiness: “What this pair does together is less important than the fact that they do whatever it is together, that they know how to spend time together, even that they would rather waste time together than do anything else – except that no time they are together could be wasted". (1)

The on-screen pairing of Eastwood and Streep is an unlikely match, but it works like a dream. They are stars from two starkly different schools of acting: Streep, with her accents and her baroque hand and arm gestures, is an over-precious and mannered actor if there ever was one. Then there’s Eastwood: like Gary Cooper, he’s short on technical acting skill but large on screen presence, with a very certain sense of how to fit himself inside the language of the camera. Something has happened to both of these actors in relation to each other, and in relation to the oceanic sentiments of this story. Streep’s frazzled introspection, more controlled and natural here, has never been so moving. And Eastwood’s solid, stolid frame has a lovely lightness to it at last.

Of course, he’s been building up to this apotheosis of himself for a long time: some people remember only his Dirty Harry films, but there was also the romance of Breezy (1973), the poignancy of Bronco Billy (1980), and especially the wrenching pathos of Honkytonk Man (1982). In that film, Eastwood took the stage as a country and western singer, and he introduced one of his tunes as "lost love in waltz time". The Bridges of Madison County is not so maudlin; it’s about love lost and love found, love examined and love questioned. But it’s still got the beautiful waltz-time lilt which only a great artist like Eastwood could have given it.

MORE Eastwood: Absolute Power, Million Dollar Baby, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Space Cowboys, Blood Work, Pale Rider, Mystic River, The Mule

MORE male weepies: Untamed Heart, Message in a Bottle, Intersection

© Adrian Martin October 1995


1. Stanley Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (New York: Harvard University Press, 1981), p. 88. back.

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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