Monday, February 14, 2011

Falling in Love

This deceptively ordinary film from 1984 about two average people who fall in love (the title is purposely explicit) is founded on an extraordinary idea: that the people we fall in love with are not always the people we end up with, but love will not be denied. The two people in the film are serious adults who have already made life choices, who have substantial careers and expensive homes. In New York City, Frank Raftis is an architect, Molly Gilmore is a graphic artist. Both are comfortably married, Frank has two young sons, Molly had a child that died.

Their meeting, while Christmas shopping in a Manhattan bookstore, is punctuated with annoying mishaps, resulting in the inadvertent mix up of their gifts (books), which they discover on Christmas morning when their respective spouses unwrap the wrong books. (The books are already gift-wrapped when they leave the bookstore, so the mix up is plausible.) Three months later, they see each other on the Metro-North commuter train (what a commercial for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority!) and remember the mix up of the books, which gives them a pretext to speak to each other. This is not the most promising beginning for a love story, but its lack of fireworks makes it all the more convincing. The mix up also points to another element at work in the story of these two unremarkable people: how a chance encounter brings fate into play.

Fate is a very old pagan notion that makes sense of human motivation by giving it a cosmic context. There is some kind of design in our seemingly compulsive behavior. We fall in love with certain people because we are genetically or psychologically hardwired that way. And we had better obey these unseen promptings so that the universe can go on functioning harmoniously.

The opening shots, mostly under the credits, show us how Frank and Molly inhabit the same world, how they pass each other in a crowd, sometimes so closely that they almost touch. Yet each fails to notice the other until they literally collide - a convergence of the twain not nearly as laborious as the Titanic and the iceberg. Fate, after all, is not the dominant force it used to be.

Later they talk about the meeting on the train with their friends. Molly says that Frank "looked sort of familiar." Their friends encourage them to go further the next time they meet. They do meet again, on the train. They go to lunch together. Things suddenly become serious, without either of them intending them to.

They finally agree to go somewhere alone together, to a friend's apartment. Inexplicably, to both of them, they are unable to go all the way. Molly's father dies and she stops taking the train into the city. She tells her friend that "we were meant to be together, even though we never will be. I just think it's the right thing. Everything else is wrong."

This is the only point where, for me, the film comes up short of reality. The script (by Michael Cristofer) has Frank and Molly's relationship remain chaste. Neither of them violate their marriage vows. In this regard, they are above reproach. Falling in Love was inspired by the David Lean-Noël Coward film Brief Encounter (1945), in which the two lovers (Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson) never actually become lovers. That was fine for 1945, but I think Cristofer made a mistake. He gives Molly the line, "Maybe if I slept with him it would've made things easier?" It is a whopping underestimation of sex.

When he believes that it's over with Molly, Frank tells his wife about her: "It's over now. Nothing happened. I'm not seeing her. I'm not having an affair. It's nothing like that." But his wife says, "No, it's worse, isn't it?" She even feels obliged to slap his face.

The director of the film, Ulu Grosbard, is an excellent theater director who directed only seven films in more than forty years. He directed the superb film Straight Time in 1978, which I regard as one of the best American films of the past fifty years. He has an undeniable talent directing actors, and his two leads in Falling in Love are at the top of their form.

Robert De Niro had played Jake Lamotta four years before. He has played so many heavies - spectacularly - that it's a shame that some of his other roles aren't as well know. Frank Raftis wasn't the first role in which he wasn't killing people or beating them to a pulp. He was brilliant as Monroe Stahr in The Last Tycoon, so scary as Harry Pupkin in King of Comedy.

And Meryl Streep. I mentioned before how some of the roles that Kate Winslet has played would not have come along if an actress like her hadn't been around to play them. The same was certainly true of Streep. In the last scene of Falling in Love, when Frank and Molly are flung by fate into each other's arms again, you can watch all the emotions of the moment played out on the face of Meryl Streep. It is her face we see last, in freeze frame. And even with the greatest screen actor of his generation standing beside her, it is her film.

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