Post-holiday, I went back to jogging around the reservoir this morning. It hurt, but that’s not the point. I was reflecting on two films I’ve seen in recent weeks which seem to be battling with narrative structure in very different ways.
The first, ‘Cold War’, has a long sweep of years to deal with, charting a love affair through post-war Europe. There are huge jumps in time, but what I found interesting in this film was the way it dealt with maintaining a coherent narrative with these sizeable elisions of time between scenes. Of course, having a film that jumps years in the lives of its major characters is nothing new, but most are constructed so that the scenes you are shown are the ones in which major plot points unfold, characters make key decisions etc. We are persuaded that what we have missed doesn’t matter that much. ‘Cold War’ is different. Many of the scenes we are offered show the characters dealing with a decision or event that has happened in the interim between scenes. We learn of it through the reflections of the characters and our own surmise as to the changed circumstance. It works brilliantly. It shouldn’t – according to everything I know about narrative structure – but somehow the major plot points in the movie happen off screen and I still came away with a vivid and satisfactory picture in my head of how the lives of the characters changed in those missing moments. I recommend it as a master class on how to use the viewer’s imagination to create the cause-effect linkages in the story in a rather brilliant and original way.
‘The Wife’, by contrast, I recommend as a master class in acting by Glenn Close. Structurally, it also features a sweep of years from the beginning of a love affair to its death, though its treatment of time is not linear as it is in ‘Cold War’. However, despite the great acting (Oscar potential for sure), I point to it as a cautionary tale of how embedded ideas of narrative structure and character arc sometimes get in the way of truth. This is a movie in which the characters are set up one way (rather well set up in the opening act) and the plot demands then contrive to make them behave at key points as if they have become completely different people. To try to explain without giving plot spoilers, Close’s character, the wife, is set up as a kingmaker, but is required to act like a usurped queen in order to give the movie its key plot point at the end of Act Two, and then to vacillate like Schroedinger’s cat throughout the third act. She still manages to have no agency in the event that decides the movie’s outcome. It’s all ‘deus-ex-machina’ stuff. The husband, Jonathan Pryce, playing the king, can’t decide if he is a wicked narcissist, or a weak creation of his wife’s ambition forever trying so hard to thank her for her support that she finally becomes weary and bored with him. Watching it, it seemed to me that Hollywood’s need to tie everything in a neat emotional bow, and nod gracefully to political correctness at the same time made a horrible mess out of a great set up. I was disappointed. It felt rather like watching a version of Macbeth in which Lady Macbeth doesn’t go mad with guilt but is instead swapped with Bridget Jones at the end of Act Two.
Disappointed, yes, but contrasting the way in which writers and directors tackled the structural problems is rather interesting. I wonder if ‘Cold War’, a Polish film, would ever have been green-lit in Hollywood. I doubt it, because it’s taking liberties with the classical narrative structure and demanding that the audience fill in the gaps that the film-maker has left. ‘The Wife’, it seems to me, is hamstrung by the need to inject a classical narrative structure’s dramatic ups and downs into a setup populated by characters who have decided who they are long ago and have no credible motivation to change.