2022 has been a year of rom-com milestones. There’s Annie Hall (forty-five years), Moonstruck (thirty-five years), and My Best Friend’s Wedding (twenty-five years), just to name a few. This year also marks the fifty-fifth anniversary of a film about love, which for various reasons, didn’t receive the same level of attention as the more formulaic rom coms of its time. But it’s more than likely the world just wasn’t ready for it yet. 

In 1967 Stanley Donen, the director behind Singin’ in the Rain and Funny Face, took a risk and released Two for the Road to a mainstream film audience. Borrowing from the French New Wave style of the time, it tells a non-linear story of a couple, Joanna and Mark Wallace (played by Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney) and their long term relationship. The film’s style freely moves back and forth between various timelines as it follows their ups and downs. The transitions appear seamless as it uses the same location to tie the narrative together (it all takes place on holiday in the French Riviera at different points throughout the years). This was (and still is) completely different to other rom coms in its way of telling a love story in film. It focuses on the entire relationship, not just the exciting parts of love, like the meet-cute or the courtship. But what really set it apart in a market chock-full of sickly-sweet romance was its honesty about human behavior.

Two for the Road playfully illustrates the joyful burst of new love, while simultaneously exploring the dark fractures a relationship can endure before it implodes. This isn’t considered the norm in romantic movies. And especially not to movie-goers of the sixties who were looking to escape reality and leave the theatre with a happy ending. The critics loved its rawness, but the public was divided. They were still used to predictable romances of the sixties. Movies like Sex and the Single Girl and Barefoot in the Park, which offered clearly resolved endings with nothing left to figure out. And though their cliches were stale, they repeatedly sold movie tickets. By the time the credits rolled, the relationship was still too new and exciting to show any cracks of reality.

But, as the sixties wore on, movies were in a state of transition. The New Hollywood movement had yet to take over with films like The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. Directors like Donen suddenly had freedom to experiment with new styles. Without this time, Donen may have played it safe and stuck with the classic films he was famous for. And it’s possible that without a movie like Two for the Road, films like Ingmar Bergman’s 1974 masterpiece, Scenes from a Marriage, also about fractured long term love, wouldn’t exist.

As Mark and Joanna’s relationship frantically shifts around the map of time, each scene cleverly blends into the next. The story darts between past and present, and the grimness of their current union is balanced by the sunny and lighthearted moments of the early days. The film covers multiple stages of the relationship. We see them as bright-eyed students meeting for the first time. Then there’s the honeymoon phase of wedded bliss, and the discontented stage as the novelty of nuptials fades. There’s also the wealthy, extravagant phase as Mark’s career takes off. Each chapter adds a layer to the story, but it all ultimately points to one transition. When they began, Mark and Joanna were poor and happy together, but now they’re rich and miserable together. 

As the years pass, Mark’s career goes from strength to strength, as does Joanna’s wardrobe, but resentments have grown and communication has broken down. As a sign of things to come, when they spend their first night together, Mark observes a silent couple sitting together. “What kind of people sit like that without a word to say to each other?” he asks. “Married people,” Joanna responds, without missing a beat. Later on in their marriage, it seems they’ve now become what they feared most. Money only complicates things and doesn’t present itself as the answer to their problems. Things are at their darkest and most poignant in a telling scene when Mark tries to initiate sex.

Mark: I have an appetite, do you?

Joanna: Wouldn’t matter who I was, would it?

What makes it a compelling story that’s hard to turn away from is that Mark and Joanna are both unsympathetic characters, yet so familiar and easy to identify with. They remind us of our own frailties, and even perhaps our own bad behavior in past or present relationships. It reminds us how love can bring out the best in us, but sometimes the absolute worst too.

When they begin their journey together as college students hitchhiking across the countryside, Joanna has left her traveling female choir to hitchhike with free-spirited Mark. Even though he appears to be somewhat of a ladies’ man, Joanna instantly falls head over heels. Their meet-cute is undeniably comical, as she clearly knows what she’s getting into.

Mark: Are you a virgin? Thought you were. Could always tell.

Joanna: Congratulations.

Mark: I was two years at the University of Chicago.

Joanna: Studying virgin detection?

Mark: Only at night school.

Both have their faults. Mark can be cold, brooding and selfish. Joanna can be calculating and manipulative, but we still can’t help but root for them. At one point, aware of Mark’s infidelity, Joanna decides to do as the French do and take a lover. As she glumly dines with her new beau, David, a man with a sophisticated world view, he explains that the demise of her relationship with Mark isn’t really that sad at all. When something is finished, we must say it’s finished, he explains. There comes a time when we must grow. When the old things aren’t amusing anymore. David’s point is made with such confidence and certainty that we begin to wonder if the French might have it right after all.

But Joanna begins to drift off and as she mentally weighs things up, we see a heartfelt montage of her time with Mark. She just can’t quit him, and neither can the audience. “I’m back,” she whispers with a tone of self-defeat, as she slips back into Mark’s hotel room and claims her rightful place next to him. In a way, it’s more romantic than the schmaltzy fantasies we’re often spoon fed by more cliche films. Despite both Mark and Joanna’s shortcomings, they continue on instead of searching out greener pastures. They admit they belong together, even after all they’ve put each other through. 

Holly Golightly, Audrey Hepburn’s character in her most iconic film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, has become somewhat of a cliché. Though she clearly has hidden depths, Holly is often reduced to a cute meme or Instagram post. The stereotypical visual is of Hepburn in oversized shades and a little black dress with a cat perched on her shoulder. As a rite of passage, college girls hang this image on their dorm room walls and the portrait is sold to New York tourists at Central Park. But for the most part, many millennials and gen-Zers haven’t actually been exposed to Hepburn’s work. She’s often diminished to the status of pop culture fashion plate while her lesser known roles fly under the radar.

Two for the Road was unlike any other Audrey movie because it revealed a different and at times unlikable side of Hepburn, which makes it all the more fascinating to watch. As Joanna enters the scene as an inexperienced twenty-something, gone is the Givenchy armor Holly Golightly donned in Tiffany’s. Those designs, though beautiful, sometimes made Hepburn feel inaccessible to an audience who could only dream of being dressed by a famous French designer. In Two for the Road she looks every inch the regular girl in her relaxed denim and blue Keds as she flounces her body around with the freedom of a child. 

As time goes on, multiple costume changes show Joanna evolve from college girl to a jaded wealthy sophisticate dressed in Paco Rabanne and Ken Scott. Though the clothes are a representation of what she’s become, she still never loses that every-girl quality and vulnerability. In later years, whether she’s in a vinyl two-piece suit or a chic mini dress, she looks impeccably glamorous and happy, but the sadness in her eyes tells another story. She needs a connection and Mark isn’t meeting her halfway. As they drive along one day, he deliberately slams on the brakes to antagonize her. Finally, she’s had enough and gets out of the car to find her own way home. Mark begins to slowly drive behind her. “Joanna, I love you!” he finally says in exasperation. Her hardened face melts and those sad eyes fill with love. She’s suddenly the girl we first knew from their loved-up college days. She slowly turns to face him and walks back to the car.

Albert Finney is just as magnetic and watchable as Mark. The two seem to be a match made in heaven – until they aren’t. In fact, there’s a rumor discussed in the Audrey Hepburn biography by Barry Paris that while working on the Two for the Road set and enduring an unhappy marriage to actor Mel Ferrer, she had an affair with Finney. Their on-screen chemistry is palpable. Sometime after the release, Stanley Donen commented, “The Audrey I saw during the making of this film, she overwhelmed me. She was so free, so happy. I never saw her like that. I guess it was Albie.” 

The happy moments are truly genuine and the scenes of betrayal are so real and uncomfortable, the lines between reality and fiction start to blur. We truly get the sense these are real flesh-and-blood people living out a relationship, and we are merely the voyeurs admitted entrance to observe it all. 

Unlike countless love stories which focus on the way relationships ought to be, Two for the Road stays squarely in the confines of reality and draws from the world we live in, whether we like it or not. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Just when things feel hopeless, the film seems to sense this and faithfully brings us back to the optimism and promise of good things to come. In the ending scene, as they drive away from a party full of people who think they’re the perfect couple, Joanna and Mark weigh the pros and cons of their marriage. No matter how much they fight or how fundamentally different they are, they love each other too much to part. Joanna kisses Mark in relief and softly whispers, “I love happy endings.”Although Two for the Road contains none of the comfortable predictability of a typical rom com, its story is a reflection of love in the real world. In a tired romantic cliche, the young lovers are kept apart by complicated circumstances, but are undoubtedly united in the end. It’s always about that build up to the finale where the lovers surmount all obstacles in order to have their kiss by the end credits. Two for the Road offers an alternative to this, where it’s not necessarily about the destination, or even the journey. It’s about who holds your hand along the way.

One thought on “The Road Not Taken: Revisiting Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road

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