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The Seventh Commandment and the Cinema

Why tales of adultery bore me to tears.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, my husband Kevin and I saw the movie Anna Karenina. For the record, Lincoln was my first choice, but it was sold out.

This particular version of Tolstoy’s story was mostly beautifully rendered and decently performed, although I thought the casting of Count Vronsky was way off. Regardless, as I left the theater I felt disheartened. This story, like so many others, is basically a celebration of adultery. Well, perhaps “celebration” is not quite the right word, but certainly our sentiments – and our prurient interests – are focused on the unfolding of the illicit passion that drives the plot.

Why is it, I wondered out loud to Kevin, that in real life most of us are horrified when we see a friend’s marriage crumble at the hands of infidelity, yet again and again we rally around it in fiction?

I recalled to Kevin that, having endured three long hours of The English Patient, I also left the theater feeling like I had watched a movie whose anchoring theme was this guy’s remembrances of his affair with ... yes, a married woman.  

Then there’s Doctor Zhivago. I remember watching this also three long hour spectacular and thinking: there isn’t the slightest hint of justification for Yuri’s decision to cheat on sweet Tonya with Lara. Unless of course “love-at-first-sight, passion-runneth-over” counts as justification? It doesn’t in my book.

At least in Casablanca, Ilsa believed Victor Laszlo to be dead when she fell madly in love with Rick. And in the end of that one, it is marriage, not passion, which prevails. Thank you, Rick, the problems of three people really don’t amount to a hill of beans. Chalk one up for the institution of marriage, resisting the Nazis, and the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

My refusal to rally around the cheating couple is fairly longstanding. As a kid I stumbled into the family room to join my parents in watching a movie. This particular adultery-fest was called Same Time Next Year and starred Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn. Apparently these two individuals are each married – to other people, need I add – but meet, fall into the grips of passion, and have an affair.  They then agree to meet at the “same time next year” to rekindle their fervor.  This goes on for several decades and only ceases when – oops, spoiler alert! – one of them dies.

Granted, I was too young to understand the nuances of this plot, but I was not too young to be mystified.

“You mean this is a movie where two married people meet secretly every year to cheat on their spouses?” I asked incredulously.

“Yes,” my mother replied. “Isn’t it an awful premise? Now please be quiet, I’m watching.”

And so it goes. The Graduate, Terms of Endearment, Out of Africa, Fatal Attraction, and, more recently, Little Children, Up in the Air, The Kids are All Right, The Descendants. Each of them a movie – and often, before that, a book – with infidelity as a main plot-point. 

When The Bridges of Madison County came out, I thought: here we go again, Hollywood is churning out yet another movie celebrating one of its favorite topics.  Yet married women, especially those in middle-age, seemed to adore this movie.  Would the staid Iowa housewife leave her starchy husband for the alluring poetic photographer? I remember my mother and her friends discussing the book, while eagerly awaiting the movie’s release. What would they do if they were Francesca and were fortunate enough to have encountered the enigmatic and sexy Robert Kincaid?

What would they do? These women were my aunts, my mother’s friends, my own mother. What do they mean, “What would they do?” I had to wonder: did this movie unlock some secret fantasy harbored by women who’ve been married a few decades?

Oh well.  Anna Karenina was interestingly staged and gorgeously filmed. But I found myself sympathizing with and rooting for her husband and not caring an iota when the fast-moving train entered the station in the final scene.

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