I’m really struggling to write a decent opening to this retrospective; one which does the film justice rather than just spouting my usual semi-jokey introduction as a convenient lead in.The Bridges of Madison County is pretty much the only film which makes me cry from sadness rather than some kind of Rocky IV induced euphoria. After watching it last I felt so down that I didn’t even want to watch The West Wing, even though I was in the rare situation of having the TV all to myself. Bridges brings out the fear in me. It’s a beautifully made film but it leaves me sincerely disturbed, picturing myself in the not-too-distant future as a disillusioned middle aged housewife, forced to live a life of mediocrity and abandon my slightly exotic dreams, settling for an adoring, well-meaning but unfulfilling husband (no offence, hubby) and a family which looks great on paper but doesn’t quite match up to what I spent my youth hoping for…
The bulk of the film is set in a flashback. In the present day we meet siblings Carolyn and Michael Johnson, who return to their family home following the death of their mother Francesca, to hear a reading of her will. Bolshie, impatient and uninterested they seem to want to get the whole thing done and out of the way as quickly as possible, with Michael’s frankly repulsive wife even making a crudejoke along the lines of “wouldn’t it be funny if your mother had a secret stash of millions hidden for you” ha ha ha ha ha. But why does ‘Iowa Fanny’ want to be cremated and have her ashes scattered off a nearby bridge? “Disgusting” complains Michael as he passes it off as the ravings of an old lady. If the set up makes anything clear it’s that these Michael and Carolyn have no understanding of their mother or respect for her final wishes. That is, until the solicitor unveils a mysterious trunk full of keepsakes neither of them have ever seen before, an ‘in-the-event-of-my-death’ letter and three full-to-the-brim journals.
Enter National Geographic photographer Robert Kinkaid a man, it soon becomes all too clear, who once had an affair with Francesca whilst her family allowed her a precious four days to herself one hot summer all those years ago. The rest of their role in the film sees Michael and Carolyn reliving their mother’s secret passion, coming to terms with it and even growing to admire it. If there’s one part of this film which is often criticized it’s the present day element which supposedly detracts from the romance and tension of the love story happening in the past. Whilst it may temporarily (and at decidedly specific moments) remove us from the focus of the film, without these moments of reality Bridges would be at risk of becoming incredibly self indulgent. With the present day and her grown up children there to keep us from drowning in the melodrama of the situation, we are invited to take a breather, to pause and consider and most importantly, to remember the consequences of terrible decision which Francesca overcame for the sake of her children.
Clint Eastwood directs, co-stars and co-wrote the score for what must surely be one of his finest turns as a film-maker although I would have to agree with the consensus that this is Meryl’s film. Everything that exists around her serves to facilitate the performance of a lifetime which wavers from one extreme to the other without so much as a hint of melodramatic, Kate Winslet style [sorry, toots] acting. Although he is integral to the story, Clint manages to sidestep the limelight and appear humbly sentient without delivering a passive performance. There are no grand gestures or sweeping statements, an attitude perfectly encapsulated in one of the most heart-wrenching moments of the film. In one of their final embraces, Robert and Francesca are both in tears although Clint has his face angled away from the camera. I’m sure I’ve watched a documentary where Streep chastises him for not milking the Oscar-nominee glory of crying on camera, only for Clint to reply “ah no one wants to see me cry” or something equally dismissive. Think of films you know where the director is also one of its stars… like Braveheart. Whilst we may expect the film to centre on the title character, I see none of Eastwood’s humility in Gibson’s performance. I absolutely love Braveheart but it is not about Scottish Independence, or a fight for freedom, like Bridges is about love and liberty, it’s about Mel Gibson and Braveheart. Respect to Clint for being able to star in his own film without starring in it.
But Bridges goes a long way to show Eastwood’s skill and sensitivity as a director as well as an actor. It’s full of subtleties which you probably don’t notice on a first time viewing, but they’re all picked up by your subconscious and stored until they become relevant. Like when Robert and Francesca first meet and go driving off towards the fateful bridge together, the camera holds for just a fraction of a second on the mailbox with “Mr and Mrs Johnson” inscribed on it. Francesca takes a glance in the back of Robert’s truck and her gaze lands on an aptly placed copy of ‘Life’ magazine. Driving back to her ranch, they bicker like an old married couple over the colour of “a mean yellow dog” which Robert insists is white (“it’s yellow.” “It’s white.”)
It takes mere minutes for Francesca to realize she’s falling for this tall, handsome stranger, who flew into her life with all the excitement of a moth fluttering through an open window but entices her with the swiftness and agility of a hawk. It’s an odd comparison to make, but in a way Robert Kincaid reminds me of the stranger in High Plains Drifter (bear with me on this one…). Both know exactly which strings to pull to achieve whatever their final means may be, no matter how different the outcome. They are self assured men without being smug and without knowing anything of their target, whether for good or ill, both are able to able to bore deeper into their souls within an instant than those who’ve been with them for years. Robert casually slips in that he visited Francesca’s small, parochial village in Italy when he passed through it and “just got off the train because it looked pretty.” The chances are a million to one, but through visiting her home town, through asking her at just the right moment in just the right way to tell him about her husband [“He’s very clean.”], Robert draws Francesca away from her “life of details” and towards him inexorably yet effortlessly. By the time he is in her back garden washing himself under a water pipe, the lure is so strong that Francesca can’t resist gingerly peeking through the curtains of her bedroom window.
I could happily spend the next five pages writing about each and every one of the brilliant, heart-wrenching moments which make up the film… there’s the look on Francesca’s face when she and Robert are preparing their first dinner together and he leans across her to reach the spring onions. The raucous laughter which comes from Robert’s silly story about a gorilla which makes you wonder how long it’s been since Francesca found anything truly funny. The freedom and beauty of Francesca baring her undressed body to the wind and the irony of the mosquito bite which quickly follows. And these are just the nuances which lead up to the second half of the film.
There’s a very clear moment when Francesca realizes that she has given herself to Robert which come as she drives out in the middle of the night to leave a scrawled note on the Bridge, certain in the belief that as a mark of love for her, he will return there of his own accord to see it. And of course he does. From then on, just as Robert and Francesca do, I forget about reality, I forget about the husband and children, the work assignment, the withering time limit on their joy and absorption in one another and fall willingly into a rose tinted world of picnics and socially unacceptable jazz bars and plenty of sex.
Oh lord, the sex. Without being even the tiniest bit explicit, The Bridges of Madison County manages to be an “intensely erotic” film from the off. If the thrill of the chase and the tension in those few moments before a first kiss is what does it for you then you’ll be reduced to a puddle on the floor at Robert and Francesca dancing in the kitchen, their lips a feather’s width apart and Francesca’s bathtub revelations. Robert’s insistence that he doesn’t want to put Francesca in a compromising situation is tantamount to ravishing her on the spot as far as undercurrents are concerned. I become wrapped up in their affair as though it were me and Robert [oh Clint, I can only dream…] standing in an Iowa kitchen about to make glorious love, and that’s just another testament to the ability this film has to burrow into my soul and bring out the desperate adventurer in me. The one which would sooner disgrace myself than submit to a life of mediocrity and broken hopes. As Francesca puts it, in the face of what could have been “everything I knew about myself to be true up until that point was gone.”
I find truly terrifying the prospect of suddenly having the wool pulled away from my eyes sometime in the future and realizing what I’ve been missing out on for all those years… What is it Robert says about change? “Things change. They always do, it’s one of the things of nature. Most people are afraid of change, but if you look at it as something you can always count on, then it can be a comfort.” I want to be convinced, but when one is standing on the edge of an abyss of change, it isn’t always that easy.
So naturally, the end of the film hits me like a London Bus. Yes, there’s the ‘will she/won’t she’ leave with Robert but deep down Francesca knows she’s not going anywhere, and I know it too. “You never think love like this is going to happen to you” but when it does, its consequences are too terrifying to comprehend and the risk of losing it by seeing where it leads outweighs the chance of keeping it “pure and absolute” by confining it to memories. And so when her husband and children and “life of details” return, I’m devastated but relieved at the same time. There’s a strong, crushing sense of ‘better the devil you know’ about the ending of Bridges which is to be applauded for its realism.
Robert and Francesca’s final scene (the truck scene) could be a film in itself and even though there’s something unlikely about Robert standing in the street, watching her pick up groceries in the rain, it tears your heart in two to know that this will be the last time the two lovers will see each other. Francesca’s hand grasping at the door handle of her car completely paralyses me and the first time I watched it I genuinely had no idea what her next move would be. It’s the kind of emotion which I don’t think I’ve ever experienced first-hand, at least not on that scale, and watching Meryl Streep give everything she has to the camera forces me to give everything I have to watching the film.
The Bridges of Madison County is a film which will haunt me for the rest of my life, and at the first sign of resignation to a life which is anything less than what I hope for, it will rear its head with all the emotional ferocity it can muster. I never thought I’d let a film command such influence on my life choices but it’s produced so perfectly that after watching it, the thought of putting it on the shelf and forgetting about it isn’t an option. Whether it’s a comfort or an eye-opener, I don’t think there’s a person alive who, deep down, can’t find something of themselves in this most magnificent of films.