Monday, January 03, 2005

Dirty house = unhappy wife?

A few evenings ago, we watched We Don't Live Here Anymore, the completion of our two-part infidelity film fest. (Closer was part one.) We Don't... isn't a great movie, but it's an interesting one that spurred some good conversation between Darren and me. Like Closer, it's about two couples who mix and match behind one another's backs, and with varying degrees of interest in --- and encouragement of -- their partners' dalliances. (It's based on two novellas by Andre Dubus, a New Englander who also wrote the story that was the basis for In the Bedroom, much of which was, incidentally, filmed in Maine.)

In We Don't... Laura Dern and Mark Ruffalo are married with two small kids. Ruffalo is a scruffy lit professor at a small New England college, and Dern is a stay-at-home mom. Throughout the film, which covers about six months in their lives, from what seems to be an idyllic summer to the onset of a snowy, (literally and metaphorically) cold winter, Dern's mental and emotional state is expressed in condition of the house itself. When she knows -- but won't really admit to herself -- that Ruffalo is sleeping with Naomi Watts, for example, the house is a sloppy, disheveled mess. She drinks wine in the afternoon and forgets to change her son's sheets after he wets the bed.

Later, she starts sleeping with Watts' husband, and tells Ruffalo -- who essentially wants to be a little boy, following his desires and not being bothered about the consequences -- all about it. He tells her he's in love with Watts, and Dern falls apart. She tells Ruffalo to leave, and she begins obsessively, controllingly cleaning the house. She even packs his suitcase for him. And when he decides he can't leave, that he needs her and the kids and all they represent, he can't even unpack the damn suitcase himself. He asks her to do it. (And you get the sense that she does.) And, in the end, Dern takes pleasure in tidying up the relationships, too. She goes to see Watts; we don't see their conversation, but you're given the impression that some resolution occurred.

As an ideological construct, this metaphor of the dirty house indicating the unhappy wife is facile and somewhat insulting. As an expression of life, though, it rings true. What makes it effective in an imperfect movie is how rarely the state of the home is remarked upon -- by and large, it's just shown in the background, the tissues on the floor or the gleaming counters simply part of the environment these characters live in.